When I was first introduced to Natasha Solomons’s The House at Tyneford, it was described to me as a wonderful beach read and Downton Abbey in book form. Despite the fact that I own both seasons of Downton Abbey, I have only seen the first episode, but as that was absolutely enchanting, I thought Tyneford sounded perfect for my summer reading list. Solomons’s novel tells the story of Elise, a 19-year-old daughter of Vienna’s Jewish intelligentsia, who takes a job as parlor maid at an English manor house on England’s Dorset coast at the outbreak of World War II. As she adapts to life as a servant, Elise falls in love both with the land and the charming roguish son of the manor, builds relationships, and strives to find ways to see her family again.
Solomons’s story certainly lives up to its description as a beach read, and the house is just as much a character as the Abbey is the miniseries. Solomons is a master of the landscape description, and her word paintings of the stark yet gorgeous Dorset coast make me long to see it for myself. The villagers come to life in her exhilarating realization of the first mackerel fishing trip, contrasted nicely with her beautiful characterizations of the household staff and their attitudes toward life and order. Most impressive is Elise’s transformation from the spoiled, impetuous, unmusical, chubby baby of her glamorous Viennese family to the mature, hardworking, grief-experienced woman who keeps the English manor running when the world is falling apart around her. The transformation is subtle, believable, and effortless as Elise glides through life at Tyneford House.
There are a few problems, perhaps no more than quibbles, but they bothered me as I read. First, just as Elise glides through the story, the reader glides through, eyes skimming over the page rather than connecting with the physical words. I feel that with such a weighty topic as the rumblings of World War II and its rather devastating effect on England’s southern coast, the story of one person’s experiences has potential for great depth, meat, and passion, yet I did not emotionally connect as deeply as I clearly was supposed to. Elise and Kit’s is an epic romance, supposedly, but I didn’t care that much. I was much more intrigued by Elise’s complex relationship with her employer, Mr. Rivers, a relationship that telegraphed its importance from their first meeting. Perhaps the obviousness of the relationship’s importance is because Elise is a fairly superficial person and admits as much; her personal complexities do not develop until she matures. Still it is infinitely more fascinating and emotional. Other characters and moments with great potential simply did not fulfill their promise. Wonderfully witchy Diana’s cruel and dangerous threats lose their power when nothing happens, and repentant Juno, who presented intriguing possibilities, disappears mere pages after her humbled return. The story, while entirely readable, interesting, and lovely, ultimately skims the surface of its potential, much like Elise in the early stages of her journey.
My other quibble, and this may truly be a quibble, is with the inaccuracies in Solomons’s discussions of opera. Now I realize that most people would not notice these mistakes, but as an opera person, they stick out to me and indicate a much larger potential issue. Elise’s mother, Anna, is a highly regarded Viennese opera singer, a mezzo as Solomons notes, and Elise draws comfort from memories of her mother’s operatic career. As such particular operas and characters have meaning for Elise, whether it is Carmen who she hears when Eve seduces Adam in the Bible or fond memories of her mother playing Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. However, Elise notes that she hears the voice of God in the character of Barber of Seville, and memories of her mother singing Violetta from La Traviata (and to a much lesser degree, Lucia from Lucia di Lammermoor) become a great solace for Elise. Now if you know anything about opera, you will have already noted the problems. If not, don’t worry. I will explain.
First of all, no one with any familiarity with opera would ever consider Figaro, the titular barber of Rossini’s opera, to be the voice of God. Even if you were to consider the baritone-sound God-like, the specific character, consistent through Beaumarchais’ source plays and Mozart and Rossini’s operas, is too tricky, too silly, and too comic to be the voice of God. Thinking this was my own prejudice, I put the question to a group of opera singers whose reaction was the same as mine: A confused look and a “Huh?” followed by several minutes of trying to figure out how such an equating could have been made. Second of all, the singer who performs Cherubino, especially a singer who has been defined as a mezzo-soprano by her authorial creator, would never, ever, ever sing Violetta or Lucia. While wonderfully showy and star-turning roles, they are sung by high-pitched and flexible coloratura sopranos NOT a mezzo known for pants roles. Granted Cherubino is not a particularly low role, but still, the inconsistency is…well, perhaps not shocking to most as it is to me, but still concerning. It is concerning because Solomons begins the book with her acknowledgements which clearly are meant to demonstrate the meticulousness of her research: a friend who was “shaved by a Mayfair barber wielding a cutthroat razor,” another who “allowed [Solomons] to stuff her viola full of paper,” Sotheby’s who “establish[ed] the value of a Turner in 1939,” and her interview with a woman who “work[ed] in the service as a young refugee in 1938.” My question is, if she did all of these things in the name of research, why did she not take the time to research the opera roles, which are of much more importance in the book than the shave with a straight razor. Such information can easily be found, even on Wikipedia. My overall point with this is that such a glaring error makes the rest of her research suspect, weakening the overall historical veracity and inherent truth of her story. And truth, even in fiction, is imperative.
All that being said, I enjoyed the book. Really, I did. Many critics and authors have waxed rhapsodic about the book. I won’t, but I would recommend it, especially if you have a lazy few days and want something entertaining, if not terribly challenging, with beautifully written descriptions and lovely, heartwarming secondary characters. Solomons’ is clearly quite talented, deficits in research aside, and I look forward to reading more of her work.