Thinking Of You

…Seems to be all I’ve managed to do for my blog friends this week! A number of posts have risen to consciousness – I was going to take a picture of the monstrous piles of books I’ve acquired so far this year (it was my birthday on Wednesday) but I couldn’t get the camera to work. Then the cats brought in a mouse, an event of such skin-crawling horror that it evolved almost instantaneously into a draft post in my head, but one that never made it to the keyboard. And I don’t want to mention how many reviews I am behind. But it has been work, work, and more work all week, apart from my birthday, which I gave to myself as a day for doing absolutely and completely nothing. I have a genius for sloth.

So it’s Friday, and I’m wondering how best to get back into the swing. I noticed that the Orange prize longlist has been featured on lots of blogs this week, and surprisingly (because I so rarely read books when they’re first out) I’ve read one on the list, and by one of the less well-known authors, too. I’d requested a review copy of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison as the premise of the novel intrigued me. I knew it had been inspired by a National Trust house I’d fallen in love with as a child, and which I’d visited again only last summer. The novel begins in August 1939 as England stands on the brink of war and tells the story of 8-year-old Anna Sands, soon to be evacuated to the countryside. Hoping for a glimpse of the sea, she is instead sent to deepest Yorkshire and a large, stately home, owned by Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton. The Ashtons have glamour; Elizabeth is elegant, Thomas is wheelchair-bound and charming, but their marriage is a wreck, and Anna is about to be drawn into its turbulence. It’s hard to discuss this book without referring to The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, for in both cases children become witnesses to adult liaisons well beyond their emotional grasp, and in both cases again, the exchange of letters will play a significant role. But Rosie Alison’s novel is well aware of its intertextuality; what eventually happens to the triangle of Anna, Thomas and Elizabeth may not be what the reader expects.

The story unfolding in the big house is surrounded by a number of other perspectives on the war. Anna’s parents, Roberta and Lewis, live their separate lives, Lewis in the deserts of North Africa, Roberta at the BBC, guiltily enjoying a second chance at an independent life. Also drawn into the story are Sir Clifford Norton, a diplomat, and his energetic wife, Peter. This enterprising couple find themselves in all kinds of hot spots, helping Polish refugees, bringing aid to the Holocaust survivors and providing a neat counterpoint to Ashton Hall where only personal trauma dominates. In many ways this is a story about people feeling helpless in the face of history – be it public or private – and how they respond to it, whether they branch out recklessly, quietly seek their own niche or selflessly bring aid to others. It’s also a book about passion, and how it will not be denied, no matter how incongruous or oppressive the circumstances. And it’s also a book that takes a long hard look at what happens to children when adults put their own concerns first. The first two-thirds of the narrative cover the war years, but a final, extra section is devoted to the rest of Anna’s life and the unfolding of the damage done to her. For me, that last section prevented the book from becoming a simple romance, and it became instead a book about how we use romance to bolster ourselves against life, in ways that are destined to fail.

This is an elegiac novel, moving, tender and quiet, despite the occasionally dramatic events it recounts. It is beautifully written and very evocative. But one thing I have to mention; it contains surprisingly little dialogue. This gives it an odd feel at moments, distancing the reader, keeping the plot unspooling at quite a rapid rate. I didn’t mind it, but at the same time, I noticed it. I don’t think this one will win the Orange prize; it lacks the wow factor,  but it was a very good read and a book that readers can easily take a risk on. Even if you don’t love it, it’s unlikely that you would hate it, as it’s intelligent and gentle and sad, as well as a little capsule of history on the plight of the wartime evacuees.

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22 thoughts on “Thinking Of You

  1. Happy Bithday again and yes, take a pic of your monstrous piles of books. I’m sure I will be very envious but it’s always nice to see piles of (interesting) unread books. Not sure what the Orange prize is for but I’m so far behind in reading Litlove (and other) recommendations that by the time I read this Rosie Alsion may well have won some other prize.

  2. Happy birthday – sorry to say I forgot it was on its way, but belated wishes!This sounds a good book, if a non-winner, butI think prizes are just as interesting for the non-winners, the long lists often alerting readers to good books they may have missed. I hadn’t heard of this or many of the others and it’s the none big names who need the push. Sad to say I have read none of the list although the obvious The Little Stranger and Wolf Hall are around here somewhere. I had read Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man which I hoped might might be on the longlist, but is not. It’s a good book, beautifully written, ostensibly about art, but about what we make of place and about the human search for a sort of completeness, in people, places and things, among other things which I’m sure you will alert me to if you read it. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I also really enjoyed the thriller Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, set in contemporary and seventeenth century Cambridge, a thriller which might appeal for its setting.

  3. Happy Birthday! I always give myself my birthday as a day off too. It makes all the difference. And thank you for this review, the book has now made its way to my TBR list.

  4. Happy Birthday, Litlove! I thought Savannah was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on Wednesday, but it could very likely have been a dual celebration. Like Pete, I am so far behind in everything that it will be awhile before I can pick this one up. But hopefully I will eventually.

  5. Happy Birthday a few days Litlove! (I’m sorry I didn’t mention it in my email–I obviously can’t handle too many facts in my head at once–something manages to fall out the other side). This is one of the books I just ordered after seeing the list. I had been eyeing it for a while, so this gave me the perfect excuse. Even though it likely won’t make the shortlist, it does look like a promising read! Oh, and glad to hear about those monstrous piles of new books! You’ll have to share your goodies soon.

  6. Happy slightly belated birthday! I love books about WWII evacuees, so thanks for reviewing this one! I shall see if I can get it from my library!

  7. Dear Litlove – I’m probably breaking some unwritten author’s etiquette by doing this, but I just wanted to thank you so much for taking the trouble to write this post about my novel. I can’t tell you how rewarding it was for me to read such a thoughtful and sympathetic response, and I very much appreciate the way you have teased out some of the different strands in the book. Many thanks indeed!

  8. Pete – I am behind on everything at the moment, so don’t worry about it for one second! And finally I have the camera, so I hope a photo will follow soon. Thank you for the kind wishes!

    Bookboxed – I like lists particularly for the new authors and books they add to my tbr pile! All these books will be good, the winner may not necessarily be the book I’d love the most. I have read Ghostwalk – last year, in fact, and enjoyed it very much. But the Sarah Hall isn’t a book I’d considered because I didn’t like her first one over much. But this one is much better? I’ve also got Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel on the shelf! Give me time, and I’ll get round them all. :)

    Becky – thank you! I will certainly take the day off again – it was lovely! Hope you enjoy the Alison – let me know what you think!

    Grad – I am SO behind on everything this week! And how kind of you to celebrate St Patrick’s Day – I’ll take that as a contribution to my birthday with pleasure. :)

    Danielle – thank you for your lovely wishes! I’ve been away this weekend with family, but you’ll hear from me very soon indeed. I’m really glad you got this book as I am quite sure you will enjoy it. Let me know what you think! And I will post a photo soon (I’m doing it to make everyone else feel better about their book buying! :) ).

    Kathleen, Teresa, Devoted Reader, thank you for your wishes!

    Jenny – thank you! And I’d love to know what you think of this if you can get hold of it!

    Lilian – thank you and lol! I loved that remark about the mouse. Those picture books are most definitely glossing over the reality! :)

    ds – thank you! And I fear I enjoyed sloth too much! :)

    Dear Rosie – I am delighted to have you comment! It gives me special pleasure to think that a review I’ve written has been insightful for an author – that’s wonderful. Good luck with the Orange prize! – and I do hope you are writing a second novel. I’d certainly read it.

  9. How great that you took the whole day off for your birthday! That’s wonderful. My birthday usually falls on a teaching day, but I could easily substitute another day and do the same. Your description of the book makes it sound very appealing — and reminds me that I want to read The Go-Between at some point relatively soon. These two would be fun to read together, it sounds like.

  10. Happy Birthday, Litlove! Glad you did nothing all day – those are the best kind of birthdays when one is in the midst of an otherwise busy season.

  11. Happy belated birthday! I somehow always manage to forget that your birthday is about two weeks before mine. Sloth is a wonderful present to yourself and I am glad you enjoyed the day. Please do post a photo of your book piles. I don’t know anything about the majority of Orange Prize nominess including this one so thanks for the review. It sounds like a lovely book that I will keep in mind for future reading possibilites.

  12. Happy belated birthday wishes :)

    Really cool to hear about one of the lesser known Orange prize nominees. I expect we will all be sick of hearing about people’s reactions to Wolf Hall at the end of it all, but I wonder how much will be said about the ones just peeping their heads into the international prize world.

  13. It sounds like you had a lovely birthday celebration! Thank you for this book recommendation – it sounds marvelous, and I’m in the market for something really good right now!

  14. Gentle reader – thank you! And it was a lovely story – delicate and very moving in places.

    Dorothy – I’ve only ever seen The Go-Between as a film, and I’m also thinking I would love to read it! And do consider taking the day off. It felt very indulgent and wonderfully relaxed!

    Verbivore – thank you very much! It is nice to have my son old enough now that he can look after me sometimes!

    Stefanie – everytime I read your comment, I read ‘nominees’ as a lol-cat nommy-ness, as in om nom nom. And very tasty those Orange Prize longlist reads look, too! Will you be back from your visit in time for your birthday? I hope so. I will certainly post a picture of my monstrous book piles, as soon as I can get the camera to work…. :)

    Jodie – there were several authors on that list who were new to me, and I’m really interested now to hear about their work. I’ll be looking out for the new reviews and feel pretty sure that the blogging community will come good and provide them!

    David – ah thank you! :) I was just commenting to Dorothy that I’d only seen the film and I just MUST read the book.

    Becca – I would have said this book was right up your street, in fact. I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of it!

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