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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell

I always enjoy a good historical novel in the summertime, and this paperback arrived on my doorstep last month from HarperCollins, as if by magic. Actually the U.S. Post Office, but it felt like magic. If I had come across this at a bookstore, or saw it in a magazine, i would have immediately picked it up or read reviews online--the cover grabbed me pretty quickly. Give me covers with gardens, flowers, food, wine...well, I'm a sucker for them. 

The cover drew me in, but the story itself kept me in that "Peacock Summer". Two women-Lillian and Maggie-grandmother and granddaughter tell two stories that are 50 years apart, but ultimately twist together. Lillian is frail and ill, living in the slowly crumbling former glorious estate named Cloudesley, in the English countryside. Maggie, having left Cloudesley the year before after an unhappy relationship, is forced to return to take care of Lillian. When she arrives, she realizes Cloudesley is in danger of falling apart. Overdue bills, unkempt gardens, and a lot of repairs are needed-but there is no money, and only a skeleton staff to run the place.  

Lillian married Charles Oberon as a young woman, hoping for a loving marriage and happy to take on the task of raising Charles' young son Albie. Charles was charismatic, and the proud owner of Cloudesley. What Lillian realized very quickly was that Charles was a deeply troubled man with a horrible temper and a desire to own and possess beautiful things, but not love them. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, unable to have children after a miscarriage, Lillian is pretty miserable. It's 1955, and she has no family to fall back on; besides, Albie needs her. Enter Jack Finch, an artist attending one of Charles' summer parties. He's handsome, smart, and a gifted artist. Charles hires him to turn the now empty nursery into a fantastic work of art--at once creating a spectacular, one of a kind room, and also to punish Lillian for being barren. As I said, Charles is one mean and cruel man. 

Lillian's memories of that summer make up a large part of the novel. Her growing feelings for Jack, her desire to break free from Charles, her love for Albie. You also see Maggie, in present day, getting bits and pieces of information from Lillian as she grows increasingly more frail. Enough information for Maggie to begin to suspect that what she saw as devotion between Lillian and Charles as a child was not quite the truth of the matter. 

Meanwhile, Maggie is coping with her own troubled relationship, and the scandal she created when she left suddenly the year before. She's a bit of a mess, but thankfully her relationship with her grandmother is her saving grace. 

This novel is all about love, and the many ways we love people, and how sometimes loving someone means giving up something else that you love, too. It's a novel about choice, breaking free from expectations, and the difference between love and duty. It's a family drama that starts in 1955, and ends fifty years later. That summer of 1955 was a life changer for Lillian, and what comes from that summer is what may ultimately save Cloudesley. 

It took me a few pages to get into this novel, but then it all clicked, I hit fifth gear, and I couldn't put it down. You know Lillian and Charles stay together, but knowing the marriage is deeply unhappy, how the heck does that actually happen? What happens with Lillian and Jack? And there's Maggie. Will she get it together, and figure out what life she wants to lead? I'll confess, Lillian's story is so much more interesting than Maggie's, but it is satisfying to see how Maggie matures through her trials. I was so happy when she finally pieced everything together, and figured out her grandmother's story. 

This is a solid story, and I liked that it didn't necessarily have a fairy-tale ending for either Lillian or Maggie. The ending felt appropriate, and I wasn't disappointed in the end--I was hopeful for Maggie, for Cloudesley, and for Lillian's legacy. 

A big thank you to HarperCollins for a copy of this novel to read and review. It's just recently been released in the U.S., and is available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Rating:  4/6 for an historical novel about family, duty, art, love, choices, and one  summer in the English countryside that reverberates though two generations of a troubled family. 


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