The House at Tyneford
By Natasha Solomons
Plume December 2011
From the library
So The House at Tyneford. Here is what I need to tell you about this book. I put the boy down for his rest time the other day, and settled down for a late lunch and a few pages. Before I knew it, the book was finished and it was two hours later. This book is excellent.
Elise lives a life of luxury in Vienna, with her opera singer mother, author father, and older sister. But their life of privilege will not last, because it’s 1938 and the Landau family is Jewish. Anna and Julian are determined to see that their children get out of the country safely. Margot goes to America with her husband. Elise becomes a servant in an English manor house. She is put to work by the proper butler Mr. Wrexham and the housekeeper Mrs. Ellsworth. While Mr. Rivers is regal and aloof, his fun-loving son Kit soon becomes an unexpected friend. The residents of Tyneford are living on a precipice between the world they have known and the world that will come.
This book is amazing in a good, solid way. It’s a little bit predictable; there is neither magical realism nor ridiculous plot twists. It’s wonderful in the way that chicken noodle soup is good on a cold day – it’s smart comfort reading. That’s not to say that it's fluffy. There are so many issues at hand here. Perceptions of class and gender are rapidly changing during this time period and the war forces them to change even further. The residents of Tyneford are trying desperately to hold on to the things that they know, in spite of the inevitability of both war and change.
“I felt the shadows draw around the house. They went up with the blackouts while I was sleeping, but when Mrs. Ellsworth unfastened the blinds, the shadows remained. I had not realized that I had been living in Arcadia until it was time to leave. The horrid trick was that for the present we all remained, but the place shifted around us. The trees and lawns and shrubs were the same, and the house changed more slowly, but something was different. We did not know it then, but our lives at Tyneford had shifted key, and we were rushing toward our final movement, whether we were ready or not.”
The descriptions throughout are perfect. Ms. Solomons describes the English countryside, the manor, and the small village so that you feel like you have been there too. In the author’s note we learn that Tyneford is not a real place, but it is based on a real place that Solomons knew as a child. The characters are as rich as the landscape. Elise is a lovely protagonist. I wanted the book to be longer, so I could spend more pages with her. Each character encountered on these pages from the brusque Mr. Rivers to a local fisherman who lives in the village is nuanced.
People, read the book. It is amazing.