Habits of the House by Fay Weldon
St. Martin's Press
January 15, 2013; 320 Pages
From the award-winning novelist and writer of Upstairs Downstairs, the launch of a brilliant new trilogy about what life was really like for masters and servants before the world of Downton Abbey.
As the Season of 1899 comes to an end, the world is poised on the brink of profound, irrevocable change. The Earl of Dilberne is facing serious financial concerns. The ripple effects spread to everyone in the household: Lord Robert, who has gambled unwisely on the stock market and seeks a place in the Cabinet; his unmarried children, Arthur, who keeps a courtesan, and Rosina, who keeps a parrot in her bedroom; Lord Robert’s wife Isobel, who orders the affairs of the household in Belgrave Square; and Grace, the lady’s maid who orders the life of her mistress.
Lord Robert can see no financial relief to an already mortgaged estate, and, though the Season is over, his thoughts turn to securing a suitable wife (and dowry) for his son. The arrival on the London scene of Minnie, a beautiful Chicago heiress with a reputation to mend, seems the answer to all their prayers. (from Amazon)
On the author's web site I found this quote, "Books are like other people: some you get on with, some you just don’t. No blame attached." My immediate reaction was Thank Goodness! Why? Because Fay Weldon clearly understands that not all of us are going to love her books. That takes the pressure off. What I mean to say is, as a reviewer from time to time I have to tell someone that I didn't care for their book. That is the case with Habits of the House.
Before we get to that I want to tell you a bit about the author. Prior to picking up this book, I'd never heard of her. Boy was I surprised to discover that she has written more than 30 novels, 7 collections of short stories and 8 works of non-fiction. Wow. Impressive isn't it? It also made me wonder if somehow I had missed the mark on her latest book. Surely as such an accomplished writer she has something that keeps drawing readers in. Plus, in the video that I watched she has books strewn everywhere in her office, has a very comfortable looking country kitchen, and is wearing what appears to be a hand knit sweater and wrist warmers. She clearly looks like someone that I would enjoy visiting with. So what happened?
Habits is touted as being "an entertaining romp for Downton Abbey fans". Am I a fan? Well, honestly I haven't seen it (yet). I know, I heard the collective gasp of astonishment. The thing is I think I'll like it I just don't know when I'll get to see it. My husband has a hard time understanding British accents, so we usually avoid programs where they are prominent. But in my mind I'm a huge fan, and I thought that the book would give me a bit of what I'd been missing. Unfortunately, it didn't.
Here's the basic plot: the family is in financial trouble and their problems will be solved if the son can be married off to a wealthy heiress. A simple story line with plenty of potential. I had high hopes for the family, and for the staff who really keep the house running. Sadly though I never felt drawn into their lives. I'm not sure if it's because I never got to know them very well, or if it's because they're all very shallow and materialistic (even the staff). It seems that most of the book takes place planning meals, dressing for meals, awaiting invitations to meals and eating the meals. I hoped that there might be more action, and was disappointed by the few events that did occur. My favorite characters were Flora the courtesan and Minnie the heiress. Both independent and strong spirited I found them to be the most interesting of the bunch. In fact their actions (aka scandals) provided the topic for many mealtime conversations.
Another reason this book fell short for me is the language. I have a fairly large vocabulary, but there are a lot of phrases and words that I am not familiar with. Normally I don't mind the occasional bit to look up after all, that's how we learn, but to me it seemed excessive. Here are a few I jotted down:
there had to be an end to gadding about;
not to mention her embonpoint;
jingoism, is most distasteful;
having fagged for him;
with greenery-yallery pretensions did not make a grand place;
sepulchre of a subdued house.
I realize that some (maybe all?) of these might be common in the King's English, but for me they're quite foreign. And this is only a small sampling. After page 144 I stopped writing them down/looking them up and did my best to understand them based on context. I also had trouble with some of the menu items, like yellow and green marbled jelly and devils on horseback (which shouldn't be confused with the angels on horseback!).
I wish that I was better able to describe why Habits didn't do it for me. I feel like it had all the pieces, they just never came together. Sometimes that's just the way it goes. Does it mean that I'm going to give up on Downton Abbey? Absolutely not. Like Fay says, "some you get on with, some you just don’t. " Amen to that.
Click on the arrow below to hear Chapter One
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