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Susanna Paperback – 13 May 2016
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Susanna is brought up by her grandmother in France in the absence of her parents in India.
Susanna’s mother, Diana, has no love or time for her daughter. On each visit by her parents, Susanna is berated and bullied by her mother and despite attempted defence by her grandmother, Suzanne is turned from a happy carefree child to a child full of anxiety and fear.
If this isn’t enough, Diana insists that Susanna is sent to boarding school, having first warned the teaching staff there that Susanna is a wilful, troublesome girl that requires strong discipline. So Susanna is bullied by both teachers and her fellow pupils at the school. Her health near collapse, Susanna is rescued by her grandmother and grandfather who remove her from the school. However, Diana’s interference with her daughter’s life is not abated and Susanna is tricked into “going on holiday” with her aunt to India with the covert intent to marry Susanna off, come what may, to any suitor, suitable or otherwise. To escape the trap, Susanna opts for a loveless marriage to a man many years her senior and has two children by him, before deciding to make a break for freedom, taking her two young children with her. But her husband is not so easily eluded and Susanna’s troubles are only just beginning….
Edgerly is a natural writer and a consummate story-teller. Her plot contains sufficient detail to be convincingly realistic, but never so much to be an obstacle to the fast pace of the evolving story, which is engaging and full of twists and turns.
An easy recommendation for those wanting a gripping and emotional story, well told.
Despite being this far into the series _Susanna_ could easily be read as a stand-alone, and if that were all any given reader wanted to dip their toes in, I would say don’t miss it. However, there is a richness in Susanna’s background, amazing tales of strong women, perseverance and a will to succeed that informs each generation. _Marguerite_ and _Claire_ bring us through these eras and we can see where Susanna gets the stoicism that carries her though the worst of times. Never to worry, however, dear readers, for anyone who starts first with number three will simply want to reach back and devour all the stories, much like Edgerley herself did as a child.
Marguerite de Merencourt was unwanted and disliked by her aristocratic mother, who with her favored son carried on a lifelong campaign against the girl, ultimately resulting in her banishment to an Irish convent school, followed by elopement and hasty relocation to British India. In an era when women existed in the shadows of the men they were connected to (fathers, husbnds), Marguerite’s life seems like payback for having made her own decisions. Ultimately she plans a way for herself, but the price she pays is steep.
_Claire_ takes us to the next generation of Merencourt women, a journey through which we discover that dysfunction prefers to travel in packs, and no one seems spared from the misery of ambition, pride, righteousness and bigotry (in a variety of forms). The teenage Claire grows into a rather bitter woman whose lot in life is to deal with the overturn of almost every fortune she might ever receive. She throws it right back at the universe, not taking the time to think about those who stand in the way, and her behavior is at times very difficult to read.
So it may come as a surprise when this very same Claire opens Susanna’s story as the doting and affectionate grandmother, now living in France, who takes the sickly toddler into her home while the girl’s mother runs a school in the Himalayas. Diana’s occasional visits seem designed to disrupt any balance or security in Susanna’s life, for she comes with an irrational anger, blaming her daughter for the distance between them, lobbing accusations and subjecting her to violent abuse. Claire is mortified by this and pleads with Diana, who only reminds her of past transgressions and denies her any redemption, thereby absolving herself of the wrongs she too perpetuates.
Not long into _Susanna_ the girl’s delight of her mother’s new baby is severely punished when she peers into the pram and the nanny reports to Diana that Susanna has attacked the infant.
“'I’m catching this wicked, BAD girl attacking Baby in her pram, Madam!' declared the nanny in outraged tones. 'So jealous she is, wanting to hurt our little baby. See how poor Samantha is crying!'
'N … no! I didn’t hurt —'
'Why, you vicious little brat!' Diana surged to her feet, scarlet in the face with fury. 'I’ll teach you to attack a defenceless baby!'
Seizing Susanna by the arm, she hoisted the shrieking child into the air and began to violently beat her. 'See how you like that, you vile child!' Diana panted between wallops. 'If I catch you anywhere near my baby again, you’ll get another thrashing.'"
While Edgerley writes in the same style as in her previous novels, with a flair and grace that embodies a bygone time and its mannerisms, mores and standards, she also captures events in an economic style that tells all we need to know, reaching out to our hearts for this little girl while avoiding a literary sort of voyeurism that would threaten to lessen the story’s value.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is that as Susanna grows older, the narrative takes on deeper layers as we witness the ins and outs of Diana’s horrific projection and psychological abuse. Astounded at such cruelty, I found myself frequently asking, “But why? Why and how is this mother so cruel to her child in such a way that most of us would not inflict on a dog?”
A great part of the answer goes back to _Marguerite_; in the review for this book I mused on the perils of wasted talent and forced idleness in a society and era in which women’s mobility barely existed. While we in our age do not often dwell on it, movement in reality equals freedom, both of which Marguerite claims for herself in opposition to her parents’ plans for her. The hand of authority—again, back to the standards of the time—nevertheless reaches to her in India all the way from France, inflicting in other ways its harsh grip and affecting her relationships.
However, the die was cast. As I read _Susanna_ I mused more on a conversation within the events of a popular reality/time experiment television series in which a family lives for three months, in every way possible, as would a typical household in Victorian England. One participant reflects the manner in which people of the era—particularly women—threw themselves into their projects and with sustained interest because the day’s enforced limitations resulted in boredom so severe it could drive individuals to madness. While Susanna is unfortunate in being confined within such parameters, she has inherited Marguerite’s imagination and drive, never willing to settle for dutifully giving in to the tasks and activities assigned to her.
Within this Edgerley reminds us that this is not mere knitting and fainting couch dwelling—not that this isn’t bad enough, though usually the sort of image we conjure when thinking of women’s lives in this time. As Susanna’s cognitive abilities sharpen with age, so too do Diana’s strategies for emotional manipulation and mental exploitation. Inserting herself into every corner of the girl’s life, Diana even makes use of casual conversation, constantly reconnoitering, the intelligence drawn from it utilized for offensive attacks. She forcefully employs Susanna in occupations that some then and now might find interesting, but are not where the girl’s heart resides. Humiliating Susanna with accusations terribly exaggerated or blatantly untrue, each turn of the screw brings her closer to the edge.
Acting in part almost as a psychological case study—sans the paucity of soul within institutional jargon—the author skillfully shows us the delicate balance her heroine is faced with: bestowed with the benefit of strength of character, the teenage Susanna must also confront the demon that plagues each generation as a cycle of abuse is passed from one to the next. Will her strong personality become a detriment as her ambitions are thwarted? Even if she does manage to break the horrific progression, will she be able to differentiate her actual desires from choices effected by spite?
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Susanna does have an ally in her grandmother Claire, and she engages in happy times in France and India, the author vividly portraying people, places and events in a manner so marvelously descriptive the passages come alive, though not only in image form: we feel the aura, hear the roar of the ocean’s waves, mingling of the people, mouths water at the platters of food as we stride through scenes.
"Flora led the way through the house to a colonnaded terrace adjacent to the swimming pool area, where elegantly dressed people chatted together in groups. A band played popular music, and white-coated bearers, wearing the traditional muslin pugri, slowly circulated bearing canapés on silver trays. Garlands of fairy lights twinkling around the pool area added to the festive atmosphere."
Words are subtly employed as actors to facilitate our engagement with the prose: hair tumbles _defiantly_ about Susanna’s shoulders, Diana _surges_ to her feet in anger and the heat _seeps_ through the ground to our feet or the salt water _sprinkles_ noses as we travel by sea. Hints of culture sprinkle themselves through the novel as Edgerley moves us between continents and years.
Readers ought not be tempted to see _Susanna_, smaller in appearance than its predecessors, as a book of lesser consequence. It is so readable one might find they have read quite a chunk as the time slipped by, though despite this ease of immersion the content’s dual layers of story and study captures our attention in totality. As _The Early Years_ in the life of Susanna Lalinski, we can expect a part two, and I shall be anticipating it as much as I did each subsequent novel after I first read _Marguerite_. Readers should keep alert for it as well, and in the meantime, if they haven’t done already, reach back into a room where a young girl was meant to be practicing numbers, but instead begged a tale be told ….
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