Friday, June 21, 2013

Book Review: Habits of the House

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon
Series:  Love & Inheritance  (Book 1 of 3)
Rating:  3 Stars

Blurb: As the Season of 1899 comes to an end, the world is poised on the brink of profound, irrevocable change. The Earl of Dilberne is facing serious financial concerns. The ripple effects spread to everyone in the household: Lord Robert, who has gambled unwisely on the stock market and seeks a place in the Cabinet; his unmarried children, Arthur, who keeps a courtesan, and Rosina, who keeps a parrot in her bedroom; Lord Robert’s wife Isobel, who orders the affairs of the household in Belgrave Square; and Grace, the lady’s maid who orders the life of her mistress.

Lord Robert can see no financial relief to an already mortgaged estate, and, though the Season is over, his thoughts turn to securing a suitable wife (and dowry) for his son. The arrival on the London scene of Minnie, a beautiful Chicago heiress with a reputation to mend, seems the answer to all their prayers.

Thanks to the surging success of BBC's Downton Abbey (aired on PBS here in the US), there has been a boom of books taking place in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era.  Since I am going through Crawley withdrawal, once I found out about this series - written by a writer of Upstairs, Downstairs no less - I had to get my hands on it.

The first thing I noticed was the immediate parallels to the Upstairs, Downstairs characters, as well Downton Abbey.  We start with the servants going about their jobs while bad news is about to be delivered to the family.  The very next thing I noticed was how long it took that news to actually get delivered.  The book felt like a setup to a television episode, but the actual "[item] is going to cause dramatic tension in the story arc" scene was several chapters into the book.  There was lots of description about who was in the house, and what they were doing, and why they felt how they felt about the other characters, but none of it was especially engaging.

When we finally get to the "financial concerns" described in the blurb, a decent chunk of the book has passed while only about two or three hours in book-time.  I started wondering, based on the amount of pages remaining, if the book was going to take place in two book-days.  The pacing remains somewhat herky-jerky throughout the book, some chapters covering one hour, and others jumping weeks or months at a time, but it rarely drags quite as much as it does in the first few chapters.

The plot line has been done before - Edith Wharton did it first in The Buccaneers.  It has since been repeated:  by marrying an American heiress, an English noble family hopes to reestablish their financial solvency.  Romance writers make this a rosy plot, Wharton made it about shattered illusions, and more recent authors have made it something in between.  Weldon goes for the in-between plot as well.  Given what the blurb says, there are no real shocks in store for any reader.

Now, the characters.  I have to admit that I didn't love any of them, at least not at first.  The Earl and his family have squandered all of their money and scorn the people who are saving them:  first their financial advisor (because he's Jewish?) and then the disgustingly wealthy American family (because they aren't proper English nobility/gentry).  The daughter is self-righteous, and the mother is a bit of a hypocrite.  The Earl himself gambles and makes stupid decisions, while the son has a martyr complex.  "I have to marry a wealthy, pretty heiress who suits my personality and keeps my life interesting but I want to marry my mistress even though she's screwing my former friend."   When the O'Brians showed up, I hoped for a fish-out-of-water type character to root for, but was ultimately disappointed.  Not even the servants have a good root-for-me candidate among them, and I've even completely forgotten their names.

It seems like most of the characters have some sort of secret or "interesting" backstory but only the Americans' were actually meaningful in any way.  These secrets and plots weren't exactly enough to redeem an otherwise bland book.  The ending feels wrapped up hastily and most problems get the "deus ex machina" treatment.  

The story is not a waste of time, and I plan on reading the sequel.  But for hardcore historical-fictionistas, you might be disappointed.  If you're dying for a Downton Abbey fix - anything at all will suffice - this is probably the book for you.

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