I’m always a little wary of books written by people in the public eye – Kirsty Wark is far more familiar as a broadcaster – but having heard the author talking about the book in a number of radio interviews I was intrigued by the story and wanted to try it. My expectations weren’t particularly high at the start – I was rather expecting it to be a little dry and scholarly – but within a few pages I was swept up by the excellent writing and the beautiful story.
The book is set in two time frames, and the stories alternate. Elizabeth Pringle’s story – told through her journal – begins at the time of the First World War, when she moves with her mother from their farm to a house called Holmlea in Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. We follow Elizabeth’s life, her relationship with her mother and their friend the Duchess of Montrose, her passion for gardening – and relationships built, lost and continuing. In later life she becomes a solitary figure, with two firm friends – Niall, an architect who shares her passion for gardening, and Saul, a Buddhist monk on Holy Isle. Just before her death, she writes a letter to a stranger – a young girl she had watched pushing her baby in a pram over 30 years ago, and who had asked her to let her know if she ever planned to leave her home.
Anna, the young girl then pushing the pram, now has dementia and it falls to Martha – then the baby – to take up the legacy and discover Elizabeth’s secrets, resolving some of her own family issues along the way.
There were so many things I loved about this book. The setting is quite wonderful, drawn in great detail by someone who clearly loves the Isle of Arran and knows it well. Descriptions feature heavily in this book – I loved the detail about Holmlea, and the way in which everything in it revealed a little more about Elizabeth herself. Elizabeth’s story is quite engrossing – through her life, we share her passions and friendships, and finally share her one big secret that shaped her life. The modern story is also strong – we see Martha picking up Elizabeth’s friendships with Niall and Saul, and the difficulties of her fraught relationship with her sister Susie and the handling of her mother’s dementia were beautifully handled. I really like the way in which the book focuses on the issues in women’s lives, their universality, but the way in which the changing times have affected how they are handled.
I’ve read other reviews of this book, implying that the author’s transition from journalism to story-telling might not have been entirely successful: I really don’t agree, I enjoyed the writing and thought it was an excellent flowing story, quite captivating, and perfectly paced. Another review recommended it to anyone who liked Maggie O’Farrell – high praise indeed, and the comparison really works for me. Yes, I really liked it that much – do give it a try.
The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle,2014,by Kirsty Wark. For the better part of the 20th century, Elizabeth Pringle, the protagonist of this novel, who was born just before World War I, had been a familiar yet solitary figure on the beautiful but isolated Scottish island of Arran. She had been a dutiful daughter, an inspirational teacher, a gardener, briefly, a young woman engaged to a handsome young man, Robert Stewart, who ended up going to Australia, to work the sheep station of her relatives, without her, as she, in the event, could not bear to leave the island. But did anyone really know her?
So, when Pringle dies, her will contains a surprise. She has left her house Holmlea and belongings to a stranger, a young mother she used to watch cooing to her child, pushing a pram down the road more than thirty years ago. Now Martha, the baby in that pram, tries to find out why her mother inherited the house in such strange circumstances. But first, of course, Martha must find out who Elizabeth Pringle was.
Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster, and writer who hosts a variety of BBC programs, including art documentaries, Newsnight, and The Review Show. Well, there can be no doubt that this novel of hers is set in the world of women: mothers and daughters, families, houses and gardens. It is chick lit. It is burdened by predictable color by numbers romances. At nearly 450 pages, it is long, boring. Its strongest suit: an excellent presentation of Aran Island, its light, weather, flora, fauna, roads, houses, rocks, pools, social life, beliefs of islanders. Wark has given us a great level of detail, expert use of Scottish language for that good old Scottish weather, mists, fogs, heavy rain, light rain. She has also, somehow, almost despite herself, stumbled to a powerful, moving ending. Give her an extra star for that.
I’ll answer the most popular question first; Can Kirsty Wark write? The answer is yes, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is well-written, has unusual but believable characters that include a passionate gardener, a Buddhist monk and a Duchess. The pace of this book, while leisurely, doesn’t feel as if it has been deliberately slowed down with unnecessary details.
Undoubtedly aimed at a female audience, the tale told is unusual where spinster Elizabeth Pringle leaves her home, Holmlea in Lamlash on the Isle of Arran, to a woman who asked her to contact her if she were ever to sell it. The letter was written some thirty years previously and Anna, the writer, is now suffering from dementia so her daughter Martha accepts the legacy on her behalf.
Elizabeth’s story begins at the start of World War I where the Isle of Arran had the judgement of the media for only sending one man to the front although they did load 80 horses to help with the war effort. This isn’t just the story about Elizabeth though, we also learn about her mother Izzy and her best friend the Duchess of Montrose.
This is a story told alternatively by Elizabeth, in the form of a memoir, and through Martha’s eyes in the present. I have to admit I preferred Elizabeth’s story of a long-life tinged with regrets and sadness to Martha’s contemporary struggle which contained the ubiquitous bad relationship, fraught relationship with her younger sister as well as her mother’s pressing illness. For me, Martha’s life sorted itself out a little too neatly for my liking with a string of instant friendships to help smooth the path for Martha to spend her time re-furbishing her new home and discover the truth about Elizabeth’s life.
The setting of the Isle of Arran was an inspired choice and I could easily picture this beautiful setting, more so when accompanied by descriptions of the sometimes harsh weather and sometimes small town claustrophobic feel.
An easy light read which has an almost soothing feel to it this books looks at the lives of ‘ordinary’ women and their ‘ordinary’ lives in a memorable setting.
I ordered this book not realising that it was written by the broadcaster Kirsty Wark. When I realised this, I was a bit dubious, being sceptical about books written by celebrities. However, I was pleasantly surprised. It was well written and a very enjoyable read. As another reviewer pointed out, it was a bit cliched. It tells the story of a woman inheriting a house on the Isle of Arran from a woman she did not know and had never spoken to. Why was she bequeathed the house? This is the mystery at the heart of the novel. As I have read innumerable stories over the years in which the heroine unexpectedly inherits a country cottage from a distant relative (usually a great-aunt) I was expecting the worst but again I was forced to cast aside my cynicism as I still enjoyed the story. Yes, as another reviewer points out, some aspects of the story did not ring true. For example, the central character, Martha, is a young journalist working for a provincial newspaper, and presumably not earning a huge amount. She already owns a flat in Edinburgh and is presumably paying a mortgage on this. However she also takes on responsibility for the house on Arran and starts to renovate it. There is also a family home in Glasgow, occupied only by her mother who has dementia and, is therefore, unable to work or contribute in any way. On top of all this, Martha employs a full-time carer to look after her mother. So we have a young woman, now unemployed, paying the running costs of three houses, paying for extensive renovations to the house on Arran, and also paying for a carer. How can she possibly manage all this?
There were a few matters like this which did not ring true but I was able to put them to the back of my mind and still enjoy the novel. So overall, I would still recommend it.
on 25 March 2014
I had been looking forward to this, as I admire Kirsty Wark and wondered what kind of novel she would write. I wasn't disappointed, though it is not the kind of thing I usually read. I'm immobile with a broken leg at present, so I read it at one sitting, and glad I did. There are definitely too many adjectives in it, and too many adverbs, but I forgive her that. And the chaps are impossible, with their craggy features and burning eyes, but you want that in a good chick-lit read. But I cried, several times. The relationship between the sisters is done well, and so is the gardening. Also the period detail - I was that hippy mum, at least for a while! The Isle of Arran, where I have never been, is a place I shall visit before I am much older. I'll give my copy to my mother, or maybe even buy her one! I liked the alternating chapters with different voices, but they were too short - just as you were enjoying one you had to jump to the other. Like all good Brit fiction it is about houses not love. But please - how could Martha, the daughter of the woman who actually inherited the house, just move in and take over, without even showing it to her mother or apparently telling her about it, and without consulting her sister, and not be hated by her entire family? Or are Scottish families different in that respect? Oh wait - her sister does hate her, and you can see why, even before the inheritance, but then comes back into the orbit. Odd. I wonder why Wark did that? It doesn't seem necessary.
on 20 March 2014
For those of us who are inclined to be cynical about celebrity novelists, this comes as a welcome surprise. It's beautifully written, with believable, interesting characters and a deep empathy for its Scottish island setting.
Two stories are woven together. Martha, a journalist struggling to cope with her mother's worsening dementia and the fallout from a disastrous love affair, discovers that an elderly lady with apparently no connection to her has left her a substantial house on the isle of Arran. Elizabeth Pringle's memoirs, which cover most of the 20th century, form the second narrative strand.
Writers don't always appreciate that writing historical fiction requires sensitivity to the culture of times past, the choices that characters would have regarded as being available to them and their feelings about the decisions they made. All this must be true to period, and is a more subtle trick to bring off than getting the day-to-day details right. But Kirsty Wark succeeds in bringing Elizabeth's story convincingly to life, and combining the things we find out directly from her to those hinted at by the intriguing things Martha finds around her nome, drawing the two together into a quietly shattering and deeply touching conclusion that I, for one, really didn't see coming.
Martha's life is also an enjoyable read, with its sensitivity to family relationships, the importance of memory and the difficulty of coming to terms with the mental decline of a dearly loved parent. Her spiky relationship with her younger sister is particularly well done. If I have any criticism to make, it is that some of the story lines in the modern section resolve themselves a little too easily, but it is Elizabeth's journey and its unexpected conclusion, involving almost every character in the book, that will stay with you longest after you finish it. Kirsty Wark has reclaimed the elderly and the ordinary from their usual position at the margins of society, and brought them centre stage. I look forward to more of her fiction in the future.
on 29 June 2015
I have mixed feelings about this one. The basic storyline could have been interesting and the setting magical if the book as a whole had been better written. I felt the characters lacked depth, there was no real development of the relationship between Martha & Niall. Saul felt slightly creepy and I found it hard to believe that Catriona would be involved with him. Martha left me cold. Elizabeth was, I suppose, the only likeable character but even she lacked warmth. Considering that Kirsty Wark is a journalist I was slightly shocked to find a few errors in grammar and spelling, as is sadly all too common with novels nowadays. I am never sure how much of this is down to a lack of decent proofreading and editing but these things should really be picked up at some point. Certainly Wark's writing can be descriptive but she then spoils it by resorting to lazy, sloppy English. Too many Americanisms creep in; peeky for peaky, casket for coffin. Surely "was stood" " was sat", although now in common usage, is grammatically incorrect and one would expect a journalist to be aware of this. Towards the end of the book, the story begins to feel hurried and a few paragraphs seem particularly poorly constructed. I have read far worse books but for me this one was a disappointment, it lacks depth and is not well written.
Two and a half stars would better suit The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark. It’s her first novel and my impression was that she struggled with it because I lot of it feels forced and most definitely clichéd. She’s set it on the gorgeous Isle of Arran – I’ve been holidaying there for years so know it in all its moods and beauty – and I gather it’s one of Wark’s favourite places too. But somehow she doesn’t capture the island that Anna Morrison inherits a house on, a house she had seen 34 years before, only from the outside, and wrote a letter to the owner asking her to contact Anna if she ever decided to sell. Well, now Elizabeth Pringle is dying – and she leaves the house to Anna, whom she’s never met. Anna herself is sinking into dementia and it is her daughter, Martha, a journalist, who takes possession of Holmlea on her mother’s behalf and moves there from Edinburgh. That’s the background. What comes next is the story of two women – Martha, in the present, and Elizabeth, her life written in a journal – and the men in their lives, their parents, and the events that shaped them. It’s all very workmanlike – and the sort of book you’re likely to find in an Arran (or any other) holiday cottage because once read you wouldn’t read it again. Frankly, I don’t think that this would have made it out of the publishers’/agent’s slush pile if it hadn’t had Wark’s name on it.
on 26 April 2014
There is a good plot to this book, and it is set on the beautiful island of Arran, with some good descriptions of the island.
However, there are too many Mills & Boon type descriptions of both Elizabeth and Martha. There is too much "trembling" and "unable to control their breathing and hearts", which you really don't expect in a 21st century novel.
There are too many unlikely scenarios. Why would two young handsome men (Niall and Saul) give the time of day to an ancient 90 year old woman? Most young men aren't interested in any woman over the age of 50, never alone 90.
I got the feeling that Kirsty may have originally written this book with just Martha, Susie, Anna and Bea as the living characters, with Martha inheriting the house and living there as a spinster into the future. Perhaps it was the publisher who advised Kirsty to put in some "love interest" in the form of Niall and Saul.
The four key characters (Martha, Susie, Saul and Niall) don't seem to have a day of work to do or anything else going in their lives, except time for emotional indulgence. Again, not really reflective of true life.
However, I did enjoy reading it, simply because it took me back to my own happy memories of Arran and also the relationship with a mother suffering from dementia.
on 21 June 2014
Perhaps my expectations were too high going into this, because I was anticipating something with a bit more depth, even having read a few reviews. It's basically a decent aeroplane read - nothing wrong with that of course, but somehow I imagined KW would come up with something more like the novels she's spoken admiringly about on Newsnight Review. Without the famous author, this book would go nowhere near any critics!
Pros: I really like Arran, so the place-setting was a plus point. I also liked the tension between the sisters over the mother's dementia care, which could have provided the grist for a more meaty storyline and more drama and emotional engagement.
Cons: It felt a bit formulaic, both in the dual-narrator structure and the past/present storyline. Characters were thinly drawn and seemed to appear as needed (eg, the carer who materialised neatly at no notice to look after mum). People didn't seem to be having too much trouble earning a living, and other realities of life were similarly glossed over, so that none of it was very believable or relatable, somehow. And the big reveal was, well, not all that big.
Still, if you're on a beach or a long journey in the mood for something pleasantly relaxing, or needing an undemanding read for a sick-bed, it'd do the job quite pleasantly.