An agreeable and generally absorbing second novel from the British author of the highly acclaimed contemporary pastoral In the Play of Fallen Leaves (1995). At a pace that can only be called leisurely, Pears traces the divergent though inevitably intertwined histories of the Freeman siblings over the 40-year period following their father's purchase of Hillmorton Manor, a huge storybook house perched on a hill overlooking a provincial industrial English village. Ambitious, overbearing Charles—whose manufacturing company prospers throughout the '50s and beyond—and his delicate, ``poetic'' bride Mary happily produce, then gradually quarrel over and stake claims to, three strapping sons and a dreamy, withdrawn daughter. Pears expertly limns the children's conflicting personalities (Robert, perpetually intemperate, is an especially vivid portrayal) and details their complicated relationships with family, friends, and servants—while also focussing, as it were, on the second Freeman son James, who survives a congenital deformity corrected by orthopedic surgery and who will find in his passion for photography both a refuge from the torments of growing and changing and a means of reconciling himself to the family he challenges, escapes, and, ultimately, realizes he needs. The narrative's omniscience is occasionally oppressive (laden with coy foreshadowings of later developments), and one feels the presence of a heavy authorial hand also in the recurring coincidences that suggest characters being foreordained for the paths they believe they've chosen. What keeps us reading are Pears's clarity and directness, and the ingenious detail with which both the Freemans' embracing environment and their varying accommodations to it are pictured. This novel does create a world, and does convey a sense of time passing, in a way that will give much pleasure to many readers. Not quite equalling its author's ravishing debut, but, still, a consistently entertaining and often captivating read. Several cuts above Delderfield and Cronin, and two or three below Angus Wilson, whose No Laughing Matter it resembles.
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