Denizens of a country estate risk suffocation under a blanket of sheer niceness.
Willett (Echoes of the Dance, 2007, etc.), known for creating quintessentially cozy English worlds in which undercurrents of darkness can only lap harmlessly against adamantine bulwarks of decency and fresh air, is true to form in this novel, first published in the U.K. in 1995. Gussie, an elderly spinster in reduced circumstances, and Nell, whose pre-Raphaelite-esque beauty is marred by stress, meet by chance in a Bristol teashop. Nell’s hubby John recently left the Navy to mire her and their young son in risky real-estate ventures. Gussie’s second cousin Henry weds Gillian, a golddigger who assumes he’s loaded because he owns a country estate, Nethercombe. Gillian’s architect boyfriend has designed a courtyard development of cottages on the property, which will be a source of income for Nethercombe, despite a real-estate slump. That slump has pushed John to the brink of bankruptcy, but an inheritance from his mother offers some hope. Disenchanted with stodgy Henry and her meager allowance, Gillian can no longer tap her divorcee mum or her godmother Elizabeth, a successful interior designer, for handouts. Gillian falls prey to Sam, who beguiles her with promises of passion and wealth into seducing John and persuading him to stake his inheritance on Sam’s grandiose construction project. On the run in France with Sam, Gillian is shocked to hear of John’s suicide (upon learning the “project” was a hoax). Henry gladly accepts her back, no questions asked, but Gillian is now chastened by the knowledge that she caused Nell to lose both her husband and her unborn child. Gussie, safely installed at Nethercombe, intervenes, and Nell joins the Courtyard dwellers, minor players who serve mainly (and vainly) to distract readers from the fact that life at Nethercombe has gotten rather dull. Since the drama driven by John’s increasing desperation and Gillian’s naive venality ends halfway through the novel, the remainder is a bloated denouement demonstrating conclusively that we are indeed meant to be kind.
Inspiring, life-affirming and yawn-inducing.