Saturday, May 1, 2010

Review: Falling Angels

Author: Tracy Chevalier
Format:   7 audio discs; 416 pgs equivalent
Narrator: Anne Toomey
Characters: The Coleman Family, The Waterhouse Family, Jenny Whitby, Simon Field
Subject: women's roles 
Setting: Edwardian England
Genre: fiction
Source: public library
Challenge: Support Your local library; Audio books

This novel (a New York Times Bestseller in 2001) is a sweeping period piece of the stratified society of London in the early 1900's, just as Queen Victoria dies, and the Edwardian age is ushered in.  Set against a backdrop of the Women's Suffrage movement, it is essentially the story of two young girls (in today's parlance they'd be BFFs) who live next door to each other. The story is eloquently told from the voices of nine different characters, with additional ample views of three others.  Ordinarily, that would be about 8 points of view too many, but Chevalier makes it work in a glorious way. We watch as time goes by for:

Maud Coleman - the only child of Kitty and Richard, serious, intelligent, and subconsciously understanding that many of the rules of Victorian England are essentially meaningless and best left behind. She longs for a friend and finds one in

Lavinia (Vinnie) Waterhouse - the devil may care (but only if carefully acted out within the rules of proper society) oldest child of Gertrude and Albert. Lavinia even writes a 'book' about the proper way for a lady to get through formal mourning. That section alone is a treasure. She also longs for a friend (while trying desperately to shed herself of her hanging on younger--but much wiser--sister Ivy May.) Maud and Lavinia meet in the cemetery where they discover their family graves are next to each other. Together Maud and Vinnie spend many an afternoon scampering through the graveyard where they make the acquaintance of

Simon Field - the young gravedigger who, with his father, spends his life watching the comings and going of all levels of society and gains the wisdom to see that in the end, everybody ends up under the ground. Simon gives us (and the girls) a grounding in reality, and is able to go where the 'proper ladies' can't. He sees much, hears much, knows much, and manages to keep most of it to himself, until secrets need to be shared.

Kitty Coleman - the restless and disenchanted wife of Richard, mother of Maud. She was traumatized by childbirth, and further shocked to the core of her being when, during a New Year's house party, her husband engages in, and insists that she does also, what is today known as 'wife swapping'. Her withdrawal from him (and from life in general) is brutal and substantial. Only later will she recover and join the Women's Suffrage movement, risking all to play out her desire for personal freedom.

Richard Coleman - a proper English gentleman of the era. He knows nothing about anything going on in his household (that is a woman's domain) and cares only for cricket, star-gazing at the local observatory, and doing exactly what he is told to do by his mother...

Edith Coleman - a grand dame of staggering (and perhaps swaggering?) mien....she causes her son, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter to kow-tow to whatever she says is 'proper' and refuses to hear of any other way of doing things. Even the Coleman's cook threatens to quit whenever Edith appears on the doorstep. Her most egregious act comes when she decides (over the objections of Kitty and Maud and Mrs. Baker the cook) to dismiss

Jenny Whitby - the maid. Jenny's story gives us the other side of the coin. Young girl with no education, no dowry, no prospects, living in poverty who comes to the big city to go 'into service' in exchange for room, board, and a few coins to send home to her starving family. No SPOILERS, but her story is central.

Gertrude and Arthur Waterhouse - the gentle couple who live next door to the Colemans. Their financial circumstances are not as good as (nor would Edith Coleman allow that their blood lines are either) their neighbors. Gertrude tries to follow society's dictates, tries to keep a rein on Vinnie - but can't help spoiling her--and secretly detests the Colemans and what they stand for. Arthur is simply grateful to be able to play cricket with Richard on Sunday afternoon, and happy that his wife and daughters have suitable family companions in the ladies next door.

When all these stories are spun together in the setting of the cemetery with the Suffrage Movement providing drama and excitement, and the Cemetery "Guvner" John Jackson providing a humanizing and humane persona, it is a riveting and poignant story. What happens to these women and how their actions influence and impact one another is in many ways the universal story of sisterhood, in other ways the never-ending story of sin and a chance for redemption. Whether redemption occurs is left to the reader to discover.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book years ago and absolutely loved it. It remains one of my favorites. I still remember learning about the orgin of the phrase "saved by the bell" from this book. Thanks for reminding me of this little gem.


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