Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever – “The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons

November 19, 2012 at 9:49 pm 3 comments

“The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons, Published in 2011

There are a lot of novels about WWII and the holocaust.  It is revisited over and over, making it at times seem like everything about this period in our collective history has been rehashed, fictionalized and over-analyzed.  Twice this year I have been happily surprised by novels that really added to my understanding of this period of history. The first was “The Lost Wife” and the second was this novel.

The House at TynefordElise is the high society daughter of a well-respected Austrian author and an Austrian opera singer.  She and her sister, Margot, come of age in Vienna during the 1930s just as Hitler is coming into power. Elise’s parents quickly realize that it is no longer safe to be Jewish in Austria.  They are able to obtain a visa for Margot to go to America with her husband and a work visa for Elise to become a domestic servant in England. Her parents promise that they will obtain visas to America for themselves and then send for Elise. She reluctantly goes to England but remains hopeful that soon she will be in reunited with her family in New York City.  When she arrives in London, Elise is carrying a viola which is stuffed with the pages of her father’s last unpublished novel, a beautiful gown last worn by her mother, and clothes with jewels and pearls sewn into the seams. These are the keepsakes from her family, their memories.

Elise finds herself working for Mr. Rivers at the old English Manor at Tyneford. She is merely a house maid but while learning how to clean silver and build fires in the multiple fireplace she finds that she really doesn’t fit anywhere. She had to leave her country where she was not wanted to come to a cloudy, rainy country where she is looked down upon.  When Mr. Rivers’ son, Kit, returns home from university Elise finally feels like she may have met a kindred spirit. She becomes friends with him and is able to be, not Jewish or a maid or even a foreign, just a young woman wanting to be happy.

As the situation in Austria continues to deteriorate, Elise begins to worry and she has not heard from her parents. She continues to receive letters from her sister but not as often as she wishes and the letters don’t help with Elise’s tremendous sense of loneliness.  Eventually, Elise and Kit fall in love but even he leaves her to fight in the war.  Elise begins to redefine her vision of the future and her life, coming to terms with what she knows she has lost and accepting what she still has. And she is continually surprised at her ability to survive even the greatest losses –

“I imagined that if my parent died or Margot, I would die of grief; I’d cleave in two like an elm tree in a lightning strike. But I didn’t die. I was hollowed out, scraped clean inside.”

But even in the midst of surviving Elise never gets over her stunning homesickness – she always dreams of Vienna, the cafes, the pastries, the perfect architecture and the music that had always  been a part of her life.

Solomons pulls some unfortunate writing stunts. Throughout, she writes several paragraphs with happy moments for Elise only to then write “but that was not how it happened.”  In a novel where the main character experiences loss after loss the reader wants her to have some happiness so Solomons’ writing technique in those parts seems like a cruel joke.  She also steals the opening of her novel straight out of “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier  and though maybe meant to be an homage of sorts it just seems like lazy writing.

All of that said these are small parts of the book and the rest more than makes up for the writing missteps.  Overall, Solomons is a surprisingly good writer. I say surprisingly because I came across this book by happenstance and so the writing was a pleasant surprise. She is able to capture a stark loneliness that is profound.  At times the amount of loss that Elise experiences had such a stunning effect on me that I had to catch my breath.  There is a triumph here as well, the strength to survive. And  Elise reminds us that even at our loneliest moments our memories can keep us company and make us feel at home.

Other Reviews to Check out:

From Trees and Ink

From Luxury Reading 

From Peerless Bookstore 

From Covered in Flour 

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Entry filed under: November 2012 reads. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Let us hope we are all proceded in this world by a love story* -“The Winter Sea” and “The Violets of March” A thankful reader

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Claire 'Word by Word'  |  November 20, 2012 at 3:25 am

    Sounds like an interesting coverage of the period with some different narrative sidesteps!

    Reply
    • 2. Emily C  |  November 21, 2012 at 3:12 pm

      Yes and I forgot to add in my already long review that a lot of what happened to Elise is based on the story of many high society girls during WWII.

      Reply
  • 3. sheridegrom - From the literary and legislative trenches.  |  January 2, 2013 at 3:57 am

    Excellent review. I’m happy you happened upon this novel. It’s now on my list to purchase.

    Reply

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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