Book Review: The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

Book Review by Bud Gundy

I ripped through The House at Tyneford in a matter of days.  It was a beautiful read and I admire Solomons' powerful descriptive gift.  I thought the story was quite good in many ways, and the emotional pull was real.

I know many people who will love and cherish this novel, but it veered dangerously close to romance for me – in that improbable and unsatisfying way. 

Elise is a 19 year-old Jewish girl whose family is forced apart by the vicious anti-Semitism in Vienna just before World War II.  Her sister departs to America with her husband, while Elise heads to England to work as maid at a country manor.  Her gifted parents are left behind, waiting for visas that will allow them move to New York.

The set-up is irresistible: Elise must learn to adapt to her new life in greatly reduced circumstances.  While her parents were celebrated artists in Austria and she had grown used to a life of finery, she has become just another servant for a wealthy but untitled Englishman and his son in a great manor, complete with a Tudor wing. 

Here, the story soared into a life-affirming testament as Elise struggles with her reduced position, finding a very shaky but workable balance.

The son Kip eventually becomes a love interest, and the novel took a turn for the worse, at least for me.  While individual scenes were incredibly fun (especially a ball during which Elise and Kip scandalize the local gentry in the only scene where I was rooting for them) the overall arc of the story flattened until the inevitable war time conclusion to this doomed love affair arrived with a thud.

After this point, I lost nearly all interest in the story but kept reading because Solomons has an enormous, seemingly limitless power to bring scenery and people to life.  And I’m happy I finished the book, because the revelation of Elise's father’s secret (hidden in a viola) was a shocking and breath-taking metaphor that Solomons handles with incredible grace.

I feared this worthy book would become just another hackneyed romance, but all in all, The House at Tyneford was worth the read.  If nothing else, the compelling descriptions of life in the English countryside are worth your time.

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