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Trouble at the Mill
on 22 April 2014
Shreve returns in this novel to the house in Ely Falls where Olympia Biddeford lived in 'Fortune's Rocks'. Thirty years and more have passed, Olympia and John have gone (where to we never know - surely the likelihood would be that Olympia at least would still be alive?) and the house is now being rented by Sexton Beecher, a travelling typewriter salesman, and his young bride Honora, a former bank teller who married out of a desperation to escape her dull working life. It seems implausible that someone like Sexton should be able to rent a house described in 'Fortune's Rocks' as huge, but he not only does this, but decides with the help of a hefty mortgage to buy it. Unfortunately the year is 1929, Wall Street crashes just after Sexton's taken on the mortgage, and the couple are soon in serious trouble, particularly as Sexton loses his job. (This isn't a spoiler, we learn it fairly early on). For Honora, the Crash is both bad news (she realizes that she doesn't actually like her husband all that much, and she's desperately short of money) and good (rather than spend her days wandering the beach gathering sea glass as before, she befriends Vivien, a socialite playwright living nearby, and devotes herself to economizing on household things). Sexton eventually gets a job working at the Ely Fall Mills (which Shreve described in great detail in 'Fortune's Rocks'). Conditions are as awful in the mills as they were in that novel, and Sexton is soon part of a group of men planning to strike in protest. The strike brings Honora great joy - particularly in her friendship with Alphonse, a French boy working in the mills, and in her growing closeness to Quillen McDermott, a heroic and plain-speaking factory worker - but also shows her quite how unreliable Sexton is, and leads her and those closest to her into terrible danger...
As always, Shreve's research is immaculate, and she gives a powerful sense of the euphoria at the start of the strike, and the growing anxieties as things go less and less the men's way. However, I found the characters in this book harder to warm to than any in Shreve's other novels (apart from 'All He Ever Wanted', which I didn't enjoy hugely). Honora is rather bland and two-dimensional and I found it hard to understand both what drew her and McDermott together, and why she married Sexton, who was clearly a nasty piece of work. Vivien was a caricature of the 'brilliant socialite with a heart of gold', and Shreve never explained how she got into playwriting, not common for a woman of this background. With the exceptions of McDermott, Alphonse and the Communist Louis, all the mill hands tended to blur rather into one. Alphonse and McDermott were excellent creations, and I really warmed to them and wanted to read more about their friendship - but Shreve's rapid shift between narrators meant we never got quite enough of either of them. The novel also suffered from an extremely leisurely beginning (scene after scene of Honora wandering the beach or baking, and rambling conversations between her and Sexton) which meant that the whole Honora/McDermott side of the plot felt a bit rushed.
There is a lot to enjoy in this book, but somehow I couldn't get involved with most of the characters (particularly the women) in the same way that I did with 'Fortune's Rocks'. Ultimately, despite the drama of the mill strike, I found the book as a whole slightly boring. Still, definitely worth a read (it's quite a quick one), particularly for big Shreve fans.