‘The Novel in the Viola’ by Natasha Solomons

Novel-in-the-viola

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.

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13 thoughts on “‘The Novel in the Viola’ by Natasha Solomons

  1. I can’t put you straight on this one as I haven’t read it – my hand did hover over it several times in the Borders closing down sale but I didn’t buy it. Perhaps I was right? I’m yet to read her other book.

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  2. I am sure your view is very valid! Maybe this is “One Day” (David Nicholls) syndrome, tens (more than 70 I think) of positive reviews on Amazon and several people recommended it to me. On reading it, it is what Bernadette would call “meh”, in my view. Just not that distinctive or original. I haven’t read this Viola book but the fact that it’s a Richard and Judy selection has probably got it a large audience. Anyway, many people like this kind of romantic, wish-fullfilment stuff , eg women’s magazine readers, and that’s fine but my tastes are not theirs, either.

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  3. I am really pleased to read your review – I didn’t enjoy Mr Rosenblum’s List which seemed to be a favourite with many people and have no wish to read her latest novel. It is a strange feeling to be so “out-of-sync” with other book lovers’ opinions………

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  4. Ah, thats great. I think its important to see a mix of reviews, as opposed to all good or all bad. And I know that whenever I see a poor review I immediately want to read the book to see if it really is that bad. Why else would I have read Dan Browns The Da Vinci Code! 😉
    If you do get to borrow the book and read it, do come back and tell me if Im right — or wrong!

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  5. I feel like this book should lose stars based on its awful cover alone! How cheesy!
    That said, I’ve actually never heard of this book until your post on it, so consider me out of the loop too! This doesn’t really sound like it’s my cup of tea, so I will leave it to the masses who can fawn over it instead!

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  6. I think your reaction is as valid as anyone else’s is. I don’t think anyone should ever be made to feel wrong or foolish for either liking or not liking something since everyone has such different tastes. It’s always good to respect differing opinions! 🙂

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  7. Actually this book is not of the romance genre. If you are looking for a romantic novel with a happy ending, you will be sadly disappointed. Rather it is a story of survivors, at a time when life could be snuffed out without warning, and survival became the name of the game. Elise, a spoilt and childish nineteen year old learns what life is really like. On the way she finds love too, but like everything else in her life, it is snatched away. Mr Rivers is also a survivor, a ‘Mr Rochester’ character with a gentle shell concealing a tough, survivor’s soul. Elise and Mr Rivers finally emerge as Alice Land and Daniel. She has wandered through a looking glass land and come out the other side. Daniel had beaten the lion. A brilliant book.

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