Thursday 21 February 2008

Set in Stone - Linda Newbery

After the lack of plot in Paddy Clarke I really wanted to read something straightforward, a compelling, absorbing story that would keep interested, with a good storyline, fascinating characters and possibly some romance. I ended up picking Set in stone by Linda Newbery, from the pile.
It won last year’s Costa children’s award, the former Whitbread prize. It had raving reviews by readers on Amazon, and a good enough cover, so I was curious about it.
It definitely served my needs of plot and twists, but it left me somewhat puzzled, and, mostly, unsatisfied.

It’s set at the end of the 19th century in England, and it tells the story of the Farrows, a rich and apparently quiet family, who hide some terrible and unspeakable secrets. Their story is told by young painter, Samuel Godwin, who is hired by Mr Farrow to be the art tutor of his two young daughters, Juliana and Marianne. And by their governess and companion Charlotte Agnew.
The stunningly beautiful mansion in the countryside where the Farrows live is named Fourwinds, after the sculptures of the four winds that Mr Farrow commissioned for the house. Only three, though, were actually put in place, leaving the fate of the West Wind to be one of the mysteries of this story.

At first Samuel Godwin thinks his life is sorted. He is living in a wonderful place, surrounded by nature, peace and harmony. His duties as a tutor only take him few hours of his evenings, leaving him the rest of day free to paint and to contemplate his lucky fate. He was hired to tutor mostly the older and quieter Juliana, but his attentions are drawn to the young and wild Marianne. Although he is aware of the age difference (he’s 21 and she only 16), he can’t help being completely fascinated and almost obsessed by her beauty and her untamed nature.
But as the time passes and he becomes more and more part of the family, he starts to realise that maybe things are not as uncomplicated as they look.
Together with Charlotte, the governess, he starts to unveil some truths about Farrow’s past that will change their lives completely.

This book left me kind of baffled because it’s hard to define. It’s supposed to be juvenile fiction, but the perspectives of the people who tell the stories are definitely adult. There’s two teenagers involved, but although they are two main characters, we don’t get to read their point of view. Which is kind of the main point of young adult books. I’m not sure that having two teenage girls in a book makes it automatically a young adult novel.
The writing was beautiful and completely suited for the times of the story. It almost felt like it was written in the 19th century. An example, to give you a sense of the general tone:

When I awoke in the morning it was from a dream of extraordinary vividness, so that I had to shake my head free of it, and gaze around my room several times to convince myself of where I was, and that the dream was not real but imagined. In it, I had been drawn by the liquid notes of a bird to the water’s edge, pushing my way through branches. I wondered now if the nightingale – for surely it could only be a nightingale? – had been pouring forth its song outside my window while I slept, for I could not have imagined such tunefulness. Of an intensity and sweetness that shivered over my skin, its song struck in me some chord of desperate yearning – for what, I did not know. In my dream I tried to draw closer, not expecting to see the bird itself, for I knew that it was brown and insignificant, and would not show itself in the summer night, but only to drink in more and more of that throbbing, silvery song, ever varying: now a mellifluous fluting, now low, drawn out and melancholy.

Despite the skillful writing, the intriguing premises (the cover speaks about love, art, immortality and desire)and the beautiful setting, this story didn’t do it for me. It evokes Gothic themes, but they always feel only evoked, never really an integral part of the story (Its main inspiration is Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White, which I haven’t read. But I also detected more than one reference to Jane Eyre).
It promises passion but it’s the lack of it that really
strikes me. The ending seems too easy, and the epilogue is slightly depressing, and if you’ll read it you know what I mean. It never has the “young adult” feel that I’m used to. It’s suitable for teenagers because it’s never too graphic or violent, but it doesn’t speak to them. It’s not an adult novel either because it doesn’t explore the implications of the issues it brings up deeply enough. It stands in between, and yet I wouldn’t classify it as a crossover, like for example The Book Thief, which I’m reading and loving. It was disappointing and this is because I always want to be completely in love with the book and its characters.
But it kept me interested till the end, so there was at least one good thing about it.


DebD said...

This sounds interesting, but perhaps not worth buy (library perhaps). Thanks for the review, but I think I will wait to hear your thoughts on The Book Thief

Ana S. said...

I do like the premise a lot, and judging by that sample the writing is great too. It's too bad it turned out to be unsatisfying for you. Still, you made me curious, so maybe I'll give it a try some day.

PS: The blog looks great! I'm glad that site was helpful!

valentina said...

debs, to be honest I didn't buy it either, that's the best part of working in a bookstore!
I'm really loving The Book Thief,but unfortunately I don't have that much time to read these days...

Nymeth, thanks for your help again, I'm really happy with how it looks now:)
I like to make people curious,it can certainly be an interesting read and i always like to compare opinions!

Framed said...

My first thought while reading your review was that it sounded a lot like "The Woman in White," which was a really good book. Newbery does write well, too bad the story was unsatisfying for you. Great review, however.

Anonymous said...

I've just discovered your blog and found this analysis very interesting. I think I've enjoyed this book more than you did but I was also puzzled by Newbery's way of mixing young adult fiction with other ingredients. I also had in mind "The Thirteenth Tale" (same influences, however far more complex in my opinion). I've just added your blog to a list on my own blog and will surely read more of your notes for we share many literary tastes :)

Anonymous said...

Hi! Like you, I found it difficult to categorize this book. It's been categorized as a children's book (for which it won an award), but I think this isn't age appropriate for preteeners and early teeners. Nor is this quite an adult book.

I reviewed this book a few days ago and I am happy to know someone agrees with me somewhat on my assessment.

I enjoyed the book though. It;'s one of those few ones that really surprised me.