Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 416 pages; 2011.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit that I don’t understand the fuss about this novel. It seems to have garnered very good reviews, but I found it hard to like.
Perhaps it says more about me than the writer, but I found the story — about a well-to-do Viennese Jewess who moves to England as a refugee in 1938 — rather dull and I never quite engaged with any of the characters. And the prose style, full of overblown descriptions, wore thin very quickly.
But for those looking for a light, gentle read — perhaps to take away on holiday while you’re lying by the pool or on the beach — then it will probably fit the bill perfectly. And if you enjoy romance stories, there’s plenty to appeal in this one.
Because, when all is said and done, that is essentially what The Novel in the Viola is about: it’s an old-fashioned romance set during the Second World War.
Elise Landau, 19, is the youngest daughter of Anna and Julian Landau, an opera singer and novelist respectively, whom are in the process of acquiring a visa to move to New York. For some unexplained reason they cannot take Elise with them, so she is forced to place a refugee advertisement in the London Times, offering her services as a parlour maid.
Not long later she regretfully bids her family, including her married sister, Margot, goodbye and heads for Tyneford, a great house on the Dorset Coast, owned by Daniel Rivers and his son Kit. But before she leaves, her father presents her with a viola, in which he has smuggled a manuscript of the last novel he has written — hence the book’s title.
Once in Tyneford, Elise suffers crippling bouts of homesickness and finds it difficult to adjust to her new position at the bottom of the pecking order.
I won’t spoil the plot, but, rather predictably, Elise falls in love with Kit, and the romance that follows scandalises the local community. But when war is declared against Germany and Kit signs up to the Navy, there’s a very real threat he may never return…
The story is told in first person from the perspective of Elise looking back on her life, and every now and then she drops in little clues which suggest that things never panned out the way she might have expected. This lends some intrigue to the storyline, but sadly Solomons has a tendency to play games with her readers — on at least two occasions Elise describes situations which never happened, they are merely fantasies inside her head. This has the effect of weakening the narrative as a whole, because you suddenly begin to doubt anything that Elise tells you.
While The Novel in the Viola is certainly pleasant enough reading — Solomon’s strength is in her depiction of the inner workings of a big house and the class divide between the servants and the owners — the plot is not terribly gripping, and it’s at least 100 pages too long.
However, given all the glowing five-star reviews on Amazon, perhaps I’m just completely out of sync with the rest of the book-buying public. I rather suspect I might be put straight in the comments below.