HE Bates wrote before, during, and after World War II. Many readers came to his work after seeing a televised version of it. It was different for me. I am fond of excellent fiction, military history, and short stories, and when I cruised Net Galley and found The Flying Officer X and Other Stories, I took a chance and scored a copy. Once I had read those, I knew I would want to read more of his work when I could. So although I came to this outstanding novel in a different way than most readers, I have to tell you that I loved it every bit as much as they did. Thank you Net Galley and Bloomsbury Reader for the complimentary DRC. I read multiple books at a time, and I feel a bit sorry for others I read at the same time I read this, because almost everything else looks shabby next to Bates’s work. Those that enjoy great literary fiction, romance, and historical fiction—which this technically isn’t, since it was written during that time rather than later, but the feeling it generates is similar—should get a copy. Once the reader opens it, she is destined to be lost to all other purposes until the last page is turned.
This spellbinding story will be released digitally Thursday, May 12, 2016.
The setting is a small town in Britain, a town with a tannery and small farms. One great house surrounded by beautiful gardens stands aloof from the rest; it houses two elderly single women and their alcoholic brother.
Then Lydia, their niece, comes to live with them.
Lydia’s arrival is cloaked in mystery. She doesn’t talk about her mother. The aunts encourage the belief that Lydia is an orphan, but we later learn that isn’t really true. And at first Lydia, who has been cocooned so carefully that she has no social graces nor any real wardrobe, futzing around in clothing that looks suspiciously like that of her elderly aunts, really needs a trustworthy young mentor close to her own age. After having eyed the local population, the aunts send for the protagonist, young Mr. Richards, whose family fortunes have slid to terrible places. Once the proud owners of considerable farmland, the Richards family is now cramped in a noisy flat that shares a wall—and the attendant noises and smells—with the tannery.
Perhaps the thing the aunts like most about young Richards is his great fondness for flowers, an unusual trait in a young man at the party-animal age. He endears himself to the aunt that gives her attention to the landscaping, commenting on the traits of flowers and making suggestions that create an instant bond between young man and old lady, but Richards is unprepared for what awaits him.
The aunts want him to meet Lydia, and they wonder whether he might take her skating on the lake. He agrees to do so. Lydia has never skated and starts out as if she were a colt trying to navigate a frozen surface, all arms and legs floundering, falling. So he is unprepared for the grace and dignity that soon possess her. They fall in love, and young love proves to be the school of hard knocks for our young man, as it is for so many.
None of this brief outline can provide Bates’s magical facility with words. This blog has reviewed hundreds of books—all read and reviewed by me—and this is one that stands out and that has stood the test of time. Bates transports us to a place we have never been and makes us feel we know it, and its inhabitants, intimately. He also lights on issues like social class and the way those with lifelong privilege might treat those without. But this is not a social justice campaign, it’s a brilliant work of fiction that sizzles in places and scorches in others. Character development is spectacularly done; I have had my nose in half a dozen books since I finished reading this one, yet I still think of Blackie, of Tom, of Nancy, of Alex, and oh of course, of Lydia. The ending is bittersweet yet strangely satisfying.
The vocabulary level that makes for such tremendous depth of character and setting also requires a strong facility for the English language on the part of the reader. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, I don’t recommend handing this novel to your love-struck sixteen-year-old as summer reading unless he or she reads at the college level.
I dare you to find a more engaging love story than this one.