We begin at the "golden summer" of 1914, when all England (or, at least, all upper-class England) is commonly supposed to have been bathing unwittingly in the very last moments of their innocent glory days, before the status quo was shattered by a war which turned out not to be "all over by Christmas". The life of Clarissa, the young protagonist, follows this pattern in close-up. She begins as an innocent girl looking forward to "coming out" during her London season; living at dreamy Deyning Park and cosseted by her indolent family and deferential, apple-cheeked servants.
Clarissa's peace is firstly broken by the arrival of Tom Cuthbert, the housekeeper's upwardly mobile son, who has returned from Oxford University. There are echoes of Atonement in this relationship, although Clarissa lacks the sharpness of Ian McEwan's Cecilia. Narrated by an older Clarissa looking back, the young girl's naïvety is layered on thick. The same can be said for the "golden summer" itself. Clouds gather over too-bright landscapes, the gilded youth lounge about their stately home and rather tempt fate by lazily expecting a life of clichéd contentment. It's a theme which can't help but draw out our sentiments and bittersweet nostalgia, but it's also well-trodden literary ground and can't help but feel somewhat stale and second-hand, lessening its impact.
The second shock is, of course, the war itself. The old world is thrown out and its survivors walk about in shell-shock, navigating an uncertain urban world of hopeless, unromantic decadence. Clarissa is forced to grow up by a series of trials, and becomes a capable but suffering woman, adept at keeping secrets. Tom returns as a hardened, re-invented man, rather Gatsby-esque in his nouveau-riche mystery. Can their relationship ever be what it was; and should it be?
The writing is a bit of a curate's egg. It's let down by clichés; "weak-chinned young men" and flirtatious "gels" serve as contrast to the serious love between Tom and Clarissa. Social conditions and conventions are spelt out in stiff dialogue, in a way that makes it hard to lose oneself in the world of the book (for example: "The union of new money and old titles still seems to be very much in vogue"; and, should the reader be in any doubt of the approach of modernity: "Things have changed... Look at the suffragettes."... "You're right of course. Things are changing, and changing fast. Look at me, the son of a humble servant, at Oxford and bound for a career in the City"); the characters sometimes seem like mouthpieces. A cuckolded husband conveniently turns bad so as not to prevent the reader's sympathies towards an adulterous relationship, as well as turning incredibly dim so as not to hinder the relationship itself, exclaiming long and loud what a bloody nice chap the other man is, and wondering why we don't invite the poor lonely thing around some time?
Then again, there are flashes of writing where the author seems to really capture the right tone. The depiction of wartime London feels fresher; the author's talent is more apparent when she can make a time and place her own, and her historical research shows. There is another detail I like about this book: chapters are interspersed with excerpts from letters left intriguingly unaddressed and unsigned, so the reader is left to interpret each one. Perhaps the author should have more often trusted herself to show and not tell; to let these hints open up an authentic world.