February 8, 2008

Falling Angels

Tracy Chevalier is best known for Girl With a Pearl Earring, her look into the life of the artist Vermeer. I had enjoyed that one, so I also read Burning Bright, about poet William Blake, which I found to be a disappointment. It was well written, but Blake didn't figure as much into it as expected and it was too gritty. One of those books with no hope or beauty. That book made me decide not to read anymore by Chevalier, but I inadvertently picked this one up at the library. And I'm glad I did.

This novel has nothing to do with any famous poets or artists. It's about two very different families caught in the midst of Historic change. The book begins with the death of Queen Victoria and ends with the death of her son Edward, which is fitting, as this book is mainly about death.

The Coleman family is wealthy and reputable, with a nice big house and two servants. Kitty Coleman is an educated woman, a rare and undesirable thing in those times. As a result she is unhappy with her lot; while she knows her circumstances are fortunate, she longs for the wider world and envies her husband's interaction with it. She tends to ignore her daughter Maude, who is also going down the path of education.

The Waterhouse family, while comfortable, is not as well-heeled as the Colemans. Gertrude thinks highly of a woman's place and of the crown. She is jealous of Kitty Coleman's beauty and wealth, but not to the extent of hatred. Her daughter Lavinia is beautiful, spoiled, and proud.

The two families meet because their family graves are next to each other, although each family disapproves of the other's choice of decor. Then by chance the Waterhouses move in next door to the Colemans. Maude and Lavinia become fast but unlikely best friends, united by their shared fascination with the cemetery where they first met. Because of this friendship the two families are forced to interact more than they might have.

When Kitty becomes involved in the suffrage movement, bicycling to meetings, sewing banners and even flashing shocking amounts of leg, her family becomes scandalized. Things like telephones, electricity, and motorcars are introduced, and the whole world is struggling with all the changes taking place.

In the end I liked this book better than Girl With a Pearl Earring. It's a fascinating look into this chapter of history.

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