“The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons

Sometimes, reading a review by someone else does not help fully appreciate a novel for what it’s worth and limits the scope of your imagination. I bought this book simply based on the review by an author named Kristin Hannah, who said ‘Fans of Downton Abbey and Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden will absolutely adore The House at Tyneford‘.  Now, I don’t know who this Kate Morton is, but as soon as I saw ‘Downton Abbey’ I knew I had to buy it.

The setting is -alas- pretty similar. It’s set in the countryside in England, the majestuous house of Tyneford reminds of me Downton Abbey (with, unfortunately, similar financial problems and the forever problematic ‘entail’) and the figures of Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and Lord Grantham overlapped with those of Mr. Wrexham, Mrs. Ellsworth and Mr. Rivers. Moreover, despite the difference in years, (DA goes through WWI, whereas T goes through WWII) it is quite surprising to discover some of the traditions of upstairs/downstairs still persist in ‘good old England’, who does not care for the ‘continental’ ways.

Yet, as the novel progresses, one comes to appreciate more the change of perspective of Elise. First an outsider who does not belong neither to downstairs because she is not a maid like the others but a Jewish refugee who had the ‘glamorous’ life back in Austria, or to upstairs, because, she, technically, came as a maid. However, as the novel progresses, the boundaries between the two ‘stairs’ are erased through Elise and through the war.

Moreover, one comes to appreciate the sea, the boats, and the landscape of Tyneford, which are different from the green countryside that Downton offers. The characters also seem to gain some personality, as I picture Mr. Wrexham less tall and with a less stern look, Mrs. Ellsworth is, on the contrary, possesses a stricter look on her face than Mrs. Hughes and somehow I think her hair is of a lighter brown color, with a different way to wear her hair. Mr. Rivers’ hair loses the stylish greyish color of Lord Grantham and he is leaner, with a more melancolic look in his eyes.

More than anything however, this novel gives an insight into the main character, Elise, whose life after 1938 is flooded with unfamiliarity, loneliness and concerns for Anna and Julian. Her love for Kit, her getting accustomed to Tyneford never seem to make up for the loss of her parents however. It is only when she finally breaks the viola and lies in the bathtub, surrounded by the empty sheet of paper and the countless letter she kept but could not send back to her parents, flying around her and having their ink drained into the water, that she realizes she has to let go of ‘Elise’, with her hopes and sorrows. As she is lifted from the bathtub, the ‘Elise’ is left back into the tub to drown, with the ‘novel’ and the letters that could not make it to their proper owners. And although we should be relieved that she can finally move on and have a second chance at happiness, we cannot help but shed a few tears not wanting to let go of ‘what might have been’.

Although I honestly hated the ending, for it bordered on the obscene and incest -frankly- I guess one never knows the drastic changes war can bring in people’s lives.

All in all, it’s a book with a vivid and beautiful description of Tyneford and the changes Elise has to go through emotionally. The few moments when imagination lapses into reality are painfully refreshing, making the novel even more compelling. But, I have to, yet hate to, admit, this is not the ending I wanted, because the author let all my worries come true.

One thing that this book has given me is even more expectation and anticipation for the third season of Downton Abbey.

‘Music isn’t just notes; it’s also filled with rests or measured silences. I wanted to play into the gap left by Anna and Julian an fill up their silence, but their silence was not a rest. No black mark on the page told me when the sound would begin again. Their silence was not musical but a vacuum – a void where no sound can exist. I played another nocturne, but this time I could not hear the tune, only the pauses between the notes.’

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