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by Joanna Quinn

Pub Date: Oct. 4th, 2022
ISBN: 978-0-593-32170-6
Publisher: Knopf

A profound sibling bond gets the Seagrave children through their dysfunctional childhood and shapes their experiences during World War II.

Cristabel is 4 years old when her widowed father, Jasper Seagrave, remarries. The only redeeming thing about her stepmother, Rosalind, who clearly hates her off the bat, is the prospect that she might produce a brother. Instead, there's a sister, Flossieā€”but following her father's accidental death and the comfort offered Rosalind by his younger brother, there's a boy cousin, Digby, as well. The three children are raised together in the unusual household at Chilcombe, with Cristabel leading their adventures. These take an exciting turn in 1928, the year Cristabel turns 12, when a dead whale washes up on the beach. The household creates a proscenium stage using its bones, and she becomes the director of a quirky theater company that includes all the adults at Chilcombe, among them an avant-garde Russian painter and his girlfriends, Hilly and Philly. But the clock is ticking on this magical world. The war that begins just as the children enter adulthood sweeps them apart and turns Quinn's debut into what feels almost like a different book entirely, driven by fear and suspense rather than whimsy and humor, with scenes of espionage and violence careening toward what one suspects is inevitable tragedy. Which, to be fair, is exactly the sort of thing war does in real life. Told partly with letters, lists, and scrapbook cuttings, there's something old-fashioned about this novel, even in its handling of its stubborn, independent female lead, a Jo March type, if Jo March joined the British special forces and became a secret agent in France.

This big, old-fashioned, seriocomic "crumbling estate" family saga works best before the war comes along.