Original date of publication: 2009
My edition: 2010 (Riverhead)
Why I decided to read: an impulse purchase
How I acquired my copy: impulse purchase at Borders in the Philadelphia airport, December 2010
How on earth have I never gotten around to reading this book before this? I feel as though I’m the last person in the book blogosphere to read and review this book! Other reviewers have said enough on the plot of the book; I really don’t know if I have anything to add to it. I’m almost ashamed to admit that this is the first book I’ve read by Sarah Waters!
The description of the book says that it’s a ghost story; but this book goes far beyond that, in my opinion. Sure, there’s a hint of the supernatural in this story (although it’s never fully realized, nor does this story line come to a satisfying conclusion), but it’s much more a work of historical fiction that takes a look at the breakdown in the social hierarchy in the years just after WWII. Roderick Ayres is the “squire,” owner of an 18th century mansion that has fallen on hard times; Dr. Faraday, on the other hand, is the son of a housemaid who has nonetheless managed to do moderately well for himself (although the reader detects a fair amount of bitterness from him towards those who are better off than he is, mixed with enviousness and the desire to be socially acceptable). At the beginning of the story, there’s a clear distinction between the two (Dr. Faraday is treated much the same way as the housemaid is treated); but as the Ayres family falls, the lines between the classes are blurred. Sarah Waters’s treatment of her subject is very deftly, subtly handled, but she gets her point across very well.
The ghost story aspect was a little more frustrating for me, especially since, as I’ve said, this part of the story gets abandoned for other, more interesting things. The supernatural stuff is creepy, but it’s not really the focus of this novel.
I also loved Sarah Waters’s descriptions of her characters, something she appears to do very well. Each one is fully developed, even Dr. Faraday, who’s a bit of a wet blanket sometimes, and not totally compelling as a narrator. He was also frustratingly obtuse at times, which is not something I particularly care for in a narrator who’s supposed to be a) observant and b) a doctor! My favorite character was Caroline (I’m laughing as I write this, because she’s the exact same age as I am, but she’s described as a spinster!). But as the novel reveals, each member of the Ayres family has his or her own particular weakness, which is brought to the forefront. I loved how Sarah Waters handles Roderick’s character, and his madness—or is it madness? Very well done.