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A disappointing read
on 4 March 2014
Firstly, let me say that I loved the original four-book Cazalet saga. That's why I bought Book 5 and it's also why I've found it such a disappointment.
The first quarter seemed to re-tell the plot of the earlier novels unnecessarily - I can't imagine anyone who hasn't read the first four books would be interested in Book 5, so why bore the reader by going over the same ground? This links in with another problem I had with the fifth novel: Elizabeth Jane Howard seems to have lost her nerve. The earlier books were models of psychological insight, giving just enough information to convey the story, the characters' feelings, the era and the themes, without over-writing or explaining too much. She would move on from viewpoint to viewpoint with skill, verve and confidence, leaving it to the reader to fill in the gaps. In book 5, however, she seems to no longer do this - she fills in the gaps endlessly and in an often pedestrian manner. She has characters saying something and then feels the need to explain what they meant, as if the reader might not have got it. She loses the lightness of touch of the earlier novels and adds weight without depth.
I found the dialogue too, at times, rather inauthentic and dull, with some characters badly drawn (Teddy's Irish barmaid being a case in point). The children were unconvincing and twee, rather than delightfully comic as in the earlier novels, though I found Georgie more convincing than the others. The older characters generally retained their shape, though sometimes just became dull or else Howard seemed to forget them and they were barely mentioned.
In the earlier books, Howard used repetition of plot-lines in order to explore themes - for instance, the series of young women engaged in romantic liaisons of varying degrees of success with older men, from Edward's creepy molestation of his daughter to the touching romance between Archie and Clary. Many of these relationships revealed the exploitation of youth by unscrupulous older men, highlighting feminist issues perhaps - the number of exploitative men in the novels was extraordinary. However, the repetition by and large worked very well. However, in the fifth book, I felt the romantic plot-lines became repetitive in a boring way, in places almost Mills and Boonish, in others incredibly implausible (Neville and Juliet? Really?). I thought Louise was remarkably forgiving of her father!
There were several places where I almost decided to give up the fifth book but I stuck it out as a tribute to Elizabeth Jane Howard - the first four books are superb, and it is just sad really that she thought it wise to write a fifth so late in the day when her powers were waning. It isn't all bad however. I thought the description of the decline of the firm was masterful, and Rachel and Sid were well-drawn. But in the end it was lightweight, rather than light of touch, and heavy going.