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on 18 June 2012
I am discombobulated. I hate saying that I don't like a book, it distresses me greatly; particularly when I was so sure it would be right up my street. Abdication by Juliet Nicolson tells the familiar story of the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936 over his relationship with American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The twist here, however, is that the story is told through the eyes of May Thomas, a chauffeur of British extraction newly arrived from Barbados and Evangeline Nettlefold, an old school friend of Wallis Simpson. So far so good: the events of the story can be told as we know they have occurred but these two can inject a little more variety into the mix.

But, despite this being an era in history that I really enjoy reading and learning about, Abdication just didn't do it for me I'm sorry to say. That's not to say that the book didn't have good points, for instance I really did like May as a heroine. She was young, capable and bore tragedy with great strength, but it seemed that the events of her daily life had little to do with the Abdication, so her part could have been in any novel about the 1930s. Evangeline Nettlefold was a little closer to the action, being a friend of Wallis Simpson, but even she doesn't really add much in the way of insight.

I guess my biggest problem, though, is that while the author can't be faulted for her impeccable research, it seems as though she went to the library, made fifty pages of notes, then set about cramming the whole lot into the book even when they were barely relevant, for example, she includes a great deal of information about advertising posters on the wall of the Lyon's Cornerhouse, when the characters only popped in there for a cuppa.

So, despite it's slightly redeeming qualities, I really can't add a positive review for this book which annoys me very much indeed. Harumph!
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 5 June 2012
After two works of non-fiction (The Great Silence and The Perfect Summer) Juliet Nicolson has written her first novel 'Abdication'. It is 1936 and, after the death of King George V, his successor, Edward VIII is on the throne. England in the 1930s is a rather unsettled period in time; unemployment figures are high and many of the working class are not working; the nation is still suffering from some of the effects of the First World War, and now it appears that there is the possibility of another conflict ahead. And set against this unsettled backdrop is the matter of the love affair between King Edward and the American divorcee, Mrs Wallis Simpson.

A long way from London and the affairs of the royal family, nineteen-year-old May Thomas arrives at Liverpool Docks after leaving the sugar plantation in Barbados where she grew up. Once in England, May makes her way to relatives in London and manages to obtain an interesting post as secretary and driver to Sir Phillip Blunt, who is Chief Whip in Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government, and it is through her work for Sir Philip and Lady Jane Blunt that May becomes involved in the lives of those in the upper echelons of British society. While at the Blunt's home, May meets Julian Richardson, an Oxford undergraduate and family friend and, against her better judgement, she begins to fall in love with him. However, Julian has caught the unwanted eye of Evangeline Nettlefield, the middle-aged American god daughter of Lady Jane Blunt, and a rather unfortunate woman who, through her affliction with alopecia, has lost her hair. Julian, understandably, has no feelings for Evangeline other than pity, but he finds this difficult to convey to her. Meanwhile, carrying out her chauffeuring duties for Sir Philip, May becomes friendly with Evangeline as she drives her to visit an old school friend of hers, Wallis Simpson, and it is through Wallis and Evangeline's friendship that the reader is able to gain access to the affair of the King and Mrs Simpson and to some of the events which lead up to the abdication.

I was looking forward to reading Juliet Nicolson's first work of fiction and was very pleased to receive a copy of this as a gift; however, I have to admit that I was not as impressed with this book as I hoped to be. The premise of the story appeared good, but the execution of it and the characterisations were somewhat lacking. The author's focus seemed to be on setting her scenes, which were both researched and presented well but, I felt, with too much of an emphasis on period and cultural detail at the expense of the fleshing-out of her characters; I also found several of the situations created for the characters were not entirely convincing. That's not to say that I didn't find parts of this novel interesting - because I did - and I'm sure other readers will too, especially those who enjoy a lot of background detail in their stories. However, on the basis of this particular novel, I feel that Juliet Nicolson is better at factual writing than she is at fiction writing, and because of this I would most probably be more interested in reading another non-fiction title from this author than I would another novel.

3 Stars.
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British author Juliet Nicholson's first novel, "Abdication", follows her two well-written snapshot histories of England right before and after WW1. Her non-fiction is written with seeming self-assuredness but her first work of fiction is not quite up to that level.

"Abdication", set in England in 1936, follows three interesting, somewhat off-beat characters. Barbados-native May Thomas, who has come to England with her brother, Sam. Their English mother had met and married a plantation owner from the island and had raised her two children with him there. May and Sam's parents' marriage was a difficult one, and both kids wanted to leave Barbados. They arrive in London, after docking in Liverpool, and go to live with their first cousin and his wife and her family in Bethnal Green, while they search for employment. Sam wants to go to sea, and May finds a job as a chauffeur/secretary of a noble family, the Blunts. The father, Sir Philip, is an MP who is engaged, like many other government officials, in dealing with the the new king, Edward VIII's, obsession with American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.

Also arriving in Liverpool at the same time as the Thomas siblings, is Miss Evangeline Nettlefold. A maiden lady of a certain age and figure, she was the girlhood friend of Wallis Simpson, from Baltimore. Wallis has asked Evangeline to come over to England to keep her company, but not to actually live with her. Wallis's Aunt Bessie Merriman, normally her companion-of-choice, is unable to travel, so Evangeline goes in her place. But, Evangeline actually is living with the very same Blunt family who has just employed May Thomas. She's "on-call" with Wallis, who summons her every now and again. Of course, part of dealing with Wallis Simpson in those days is also dealing with King Edward - known to intimates by his family name - David.

The third main character is recent-Oxford graduate Julian, who is a friend of the Blunt's son. All three characters - along with the others both above and below stairs - are thrown together as the year 1936 progresses. The king's "love crisis" is all-enveloping as Edward and Wallis march together to his abdication for "the woman I love". But other events in 1936 are brought into focus - the rise of Hitler's Germany and the problems it's beginning to cause, the Spanish Civil war, and, of course, England's own home-grown Fascist, Sir Oswald Mosely.

While all the characters are interesting, maybe the most bizarre is Miss Nettlefold. She is the glue that holds the book together because she knows most of the characters. Strange things happen when "Vangie" is around. The plot is actually quite simple - the ending is quite knowable long before it actually happens, but getting the reader there involves quite an enjoyable journey. Juliet Nicholson knows her history of the first half of the 20th century, as she proves in her works of non-fiction. In this book, "Abdication", she gives us a good fictional view of the times.
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Having really enjoyed Juliet Nicolson's two social history books, The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 and The Great Silence, I was intrigued to read the authors first novel. In "Abdication", Nicolson turns her attention to the tumultuous year of 1936, looking through the eyes of three characters on the fringe of the action. The first is May Thomas, who leaves Barbados with her brother Sam, to come to England and finds a job as a driver/secretary for Sir Phillip and Lady Joan Bradley. The second is Miss Evangeline Nettlefold, an old schoolfriend of Wallis Simpson, whose godmother is Lady Joan and who is visiting England from the States. Lastly, we have Julian Richardson, the handsome friend of the Bradley's son Rupert, who both Evangeline (rather hopelessly) and May find very attractive.

Although this story is called abdication and does deal with the crisis caused by Mrs Simpson and the rather pathetic and overly devoted King, the novel also gets caught up in other events of the period too. There is the elusive and charismatic Oswald Mosley, at the height of his success in England - who May in particular is partly repulsed and partly intrigued by. This storyline is brought into greater emphasis by the fact that May, whose own family life is full of secrets and unhappiness, is taken in willingly and lovingly by her cousins, who are Jewish. Europe is, at that moment, in the full throes of the rise of facism. Ribbentrop is seen as a delightful future dinner guest and the Bradley's two children, along with Julian, are impressed by the Berlin Olympics. The King is worrying pro-Hitler and eyebrows are being raised at his indiscreet comments and even more indiscreet behaviour.

In a way, the actual action of the novel is side lined by the characters and it might have been better had the author tightened the storyline to focus on one particular event. As it is, this is a wide ranging novel with many viewpoints, but no less enjoyable for that. By far the most sympathetic character is the clumsy 'charity case' Evangeline Nettleford - delightfully named, clumsy, unnattractive and whose behaviour elicits clucks of sympathy alongside your feelings of social awkwardness. Laurie Graham also used an old schoolfriend of Wallis Simpson as a way to view events in her wonderful novel, Gone with the Windsors: A Novel, to great comic success. Overall, this is a very enjoyable read, although, at times, the plot does get somewhat lost amongst the various storylines and characters, who are dealing with their own personal problems alongside a national crisis. A great debut novel though and I look forward to reading more from this very talented writer.
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on 7 March 2016
Story told from viewpoint of the young female chauffeur, newly arrived in UK, who "accidentally" becomes unintentional witness to events in 1930's leading to the abdication.
Having been interested from my childhood, listening to my own Grandmother's memories of those times.
I have considered the profound effect on our present Queen, as a young girl, witness to the very serious nature of those times.
My own respect for our Queen Elizabeth, and her parents.
And the respect and admiration of Queen Elizabeth, throughout her time serving Great Britain.
I wish her Happy 90th Birthday, and say Thank You.
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Set in 1936, this is a novel which can't quite make up its mind about its own identity: the title indicates a fictional concern with the Wallis Simpson/Edward story, but the narrative reads more like a mashed-up social history of 1936.

The scenes containing Wallis herself are done well: they're dramatic, evocative and intriguing. The problem is they're few and far between and the rest of the narrative gets very (very) bogged down in cramming in every social and cultural reference possible as well as jamming in all that Nicolson knows about the time. So there are great information dumps on Noel Coward and first nights at London theatres; a page detailing the kinds of menus and dishes available at society dinner parties (not a specific occasion which we witness in the book, just in general); and advertising campaigns available at Lyons shops.

As well as this, Nicolson shoe-horns in key names and artefacts: someone is reading `a marvellous new book about life on a plantation... called Gone With the Wind'; May goes out for a walk and bumps into Virginia Woolf (cue a mini-lecture on the Bloomsbury Group); goes into a pub with her socialist friend and bumps into a man on a walking tour with Eric Blair (George Orwell); and her cousin conveniently marries into a Jewish family from Bethnal Green so that we can witness a fascist rally led by Walter Mosley. Said socialist friend also goes off, of course, to witness the Berlin olympics and then fight in the Spanish civil war.

I'm sounding like I didn't enjoy this book which isn't true - I did, however, find it frustrating that the story of the title was submerged beneath so much surrounding background detail. If this had billed itself as a non-fictional book about 1936 I might have loved it but I can't help thinking that this is a book masquerading under an alias.

So on the basis of this I would certainly read Nicolson's non-fiction. She's a fluent and interesting writer but I think the skills of the historian and the novelist are not the same: I would have liked this book much more if it had been focused with greater clarity on the story it wants to tell and had learnt the art of selective and significant detail.
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May Thomas and Evangeline Nettleford are the impoverished daughters of once rich families.
They both arrive together in England and whilst May at 19 is pretty and happy Evangeline
is a overweight socialite who suffers from extreme anxiety.

Their paths cross when May runs over Evangelines beloved dog during a visit to Wallis
who is Evangelines friend from home, surprise surprise Wallis is with her lover David
who soon will be crowned King of England.

Overweight and overlooked, Evangeline is doomed to spinserhood - but her life changes for
the better as she becomes Wallis Simpson confidante and companion and goes on holidays
with her and the new King.

A brilliant story with fabulous attention to detail to events and the drama of what will
go down as one of the greatest scandals of modern times - The Abdication. I loved it.
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on 8 January 2014
The year is 1936 and two different woman have arrived to England. May Thomas who has come from Barbados looking for her first job and Evangeline Nettlefold an old school friend of Wallis Simpson. The two women could not be any different but the one thing that will share is the Abdication of King Edward VIII.
Let say that "Abdication" by Juliet Nicolson looked it would be any interesting book but wasn't really that good. The characters seemed flat and didn't interest me at all. Overall the wasn't that interesting either. Others may have enjoyed "Abdication" but is not a keeper to me.
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on 21 August 2012
Ms Nicolson is a very gifted historian - but not a novelist. Fiction simply is not her genre and she does not make the leap. I bought this because I wanted to read it, I liked her other work, and I love the period. No, this is just plain not very good as a story and staggering it got published as one.


How did a submissions committe in this crowded market pass this? Well, no risk we suppose - it says everything about the state of publishing when every rule about engaging the reader is tossed aside.

I gave up after three chapters.

Yes, the research is impeccable - so write a non-fiction book.

But the lady driver story just is plain ridiculous. After chapter two I was egging on trying to find the plot, please make me want to read this... where is it? And then we get endless back story that breaks every rule and means we don't engage with any character at all.

I don't think I've ever given a one star review - so, golly, that shows how frustrated and cheated I feel that the writer and her editor put this out there to spend good money on.

Such a waste of material.
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on 24 July 2012
I agree with some other reviewers ... too much research and not enough character development and human interest. 1936 was a pivotal year in history but including so many true events made it less realistic rather than more, because of the number of coincidences nneded to shoehorn them into the plot. I didn't like any of the characters (too many of them?) nor did I learn anything. Unsatisfactory as a novel but the writing style was OK and I might try some of the author's non-fiction. I forced myself to get to the end but would never want to read it again. If it had been a library book I would have returned it unfinished and if I had found it through browsing in a bookshop I would not have bought it - just not my kind of book I guess.
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