I thought this an excellent, immensely enjoyable book. It wasn't quite what I expected: from the publisher's description I thought it would be a gentle comedy of the conflict between the manners of the English middle-class in the 1950s and those of German Jewish refugees - something like George Mikes's How To be An Alien in the form of a novel. Well, there is some of that, certainly, but there is far more depth and subtle observation in the book, too.
Natasha Solomons writes in a straightforward, gentle way. The prose is a pleasure throughout and she writes of what she knows: of the place where she grew up and now lives, and of the heritage of her family. All of this makes the book an easy and very enjoyable read; she captures beautifully the Dorset countryside, the turn of the seasons and the people of that part of England. However, within this almost cosy setting and structure, this book has a great deal to say about some very important things - among them the meaning of belonging; the effect of evil forces destroying a person's family and most of what gives them the sense of who they are; the pain of exile and people's responses to it and - not least - the meaning of being English. Solomons also catches, with a lovely lightness of touch, much of the experience of exile - the tiny reminders of the past, the importance of food, the significance of names, the never quite feeling secure, and so on.
Jack and Sadie, refugees from the Nazis, respond quite differently to their situation. Jack, by means of the eponymous list, is determined to forget all about the past, to be relentlessly cheerful and to make himself into what he believes to be an Englishman. Sadie is concerned almost exclusively with her past and her terrible losses, and has no wish to be in the present or to be happy. Solomons doesn't spare them their faults but treats them with great compassion, so that I felt real sympathy for two initially rather unsympathetic characters. We see not only Jack's absurd and infuriating obsessiveness, but also his admirable indomitability and strength, and with Sadie not just her misery and determination to be unhappy but also the deep human importance of remembrance and connection to our roots. We are also reminded that her Dorset labouring men, although they do not join golf clubs or do many of the other things on Jack's list, are Englishmen - and among the best of Englishmen, at that.
All of this is done with a lovely delicate touch. Solomons doesn't labour points or lecture, so one is always carried along with the story. To give two examples: Jack gradually has to accept that in making his golf course he cannot just impose an imported plan but must work with the existing landscape, and this is gently mirrored in (but never explicitly compared with) his gradual abandonment of trying to make himself into something he patently is not. Also, there is a deeply poignant passage in which Sadie bakes many of the wonderful dishes of her childhood for the ladies of the Village Coronation Committee but does not feel confident to stay and eat her own food among them. This is made all the more poignant because Solomons doesn't beat you over the head with it - she describes it beautifully and then just leaves it with you. The book is full of such things - it's exemplary writing, I think.
Sorry to go on - there's a lot more I'd like to say but I'd better stop. This book is an easy and charming read but also has real substance, and it manages to be heart-warming without being fatuously sentimental. My sense of the book is perhaps encapsulated in a brief passage near the end which made me chuckle out loud at its beginning and at the end of which I had to stop reading for a minute or two because tears had dimmed my vision. It's a real gem, in my view, and wholeheartedly recommended.