A novel details the gossip and rumors surrounding a renowned theater family, as its would-be biographer searches for the truth.
The story is set in 1965 and most of it takes place in the quiet fictional town of Oldfield, Connecticut, not far from New York City. Jasper de Vole, columnist for the Scrutator, travels to Oldfield to conduct research for a biography on the Harts, a famous acting family that resided in the town. Rex and Dora Hart have died, and locals haven’t seen their daughter, Margot, for many years. But socialite Winifred “Freddie” Hart (who is not an actress) is agreeable and shows Jasper many artifacts in the family’s home of Coverdale, with the help of curmudgeonly housekeeper Mrs. Plunkett. Freddie even invites Jasper to take up residence at Coverdale, which he does. At first Jasper is taken in by the treasure trove of objects he is shown and the hospitality of Freddie, but he can’t shake the feeling that there is a bigger story to uncover and that the family is hiding something. He wonders about the disappearance of Margot, whom Freddie doesn’t mention. Living at Coverdale allows him to snoop around the house whenever he’s able to avoid Mrs. Plunkett. Meanwhile, Freddie’s property, Wilderhall, sits in disrepair, as she hasn’t used or maintained it for many years. And elsewhere in town, Margot’s old friend Whitty Daniels meets Mr. Moravec, a handsome Shakespeare scholar, who says he’s interested in purchasing Wilderhall. The story’s characters are likable and appealing, particularly Whitty, who loves the dilapidated Wilderhall (“There is a beauty in crumbling ruins, don’t you think? They engage the imagination: you have to complete them in your mind”). And Farewell’s (House Party, 2017, etc.) prose is bright and evocative. But it’s difficult to categorize this book—it lacks the fast pace and urgency of a thriller. It doesn’t always feel like a mystery either, because the knowledge that a character is missing is often imparted to readers first, and the players don’t have to expend death-defying efforts to learn crucial information. It’s a bit gentler than those genres while still remaining engaging for audiences that aren’t looking for heart-stopping suspense.
This tale should prove entertaining for readers who enjoy amusing characters and a less pulpy style of intrigue.