“But these backwaters of existence sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion” ― Edith Wharton
I’d never heard of this book, or the author, before I was asked to review it. In fact, I will confess to having thought it was a modern novel – as so many I am requested to review are. So I was surprised, but also not, having read the novel, to discover it was written in the 1970s. I was taken by the language and setting, and thought the portrayal of the time was done very well, but I also thought that is had a slightly modern feel to it. This has led me to conclude that Dodie Smith was somewhat ahead of her contemporaries in her writing style.
A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith
‘This is going to be a long five minutes’ walk,’ said June.
May thought this possible as there was still no sign of any house, but she continued to find things to praise: the overgrown hedges, the tall, still-dripping trees, the brilliant green of the grassy verges, the freshness of the air. And after several more bends in the lane they saw a white wooden gate standing open. Once through this they looked across a large, circular lawn surrounded by a gravel drive. And now at last they were face to face with the house.
‘Much too large,’ said June.
May and June are devoted sisters, married to equally-devoted brothers, George and Robert, and even after more than two decades of marriage the four still thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. So when May and her highly-successful husband commit to a five-year lease on a huge, decaying manor house out in the country it seems only natural that they should persuade June and Robert to accept, rent free, a cottage within the grounds.
The two families leave London and, once joined by two not-quite-stereotypical grandparents, and blessed by regular visits from their respective children, begin to thoroughly enjoy their new experiences. Any initial qualms about leaving the city are lost in blissful hours spent wandering through the lilac groves, listening to the birdsong of the resident nightingale, absorbing the country air and indulging in May’s excellent cooking. The only thing that could possibly distress this perfect equilibrium is the compulsory visit of dreaded Aunt Mildred aka ‘Mildew’. Eccentric, annoying and thoroughly too young for her age, Mildred delights in secret dramas, regardless of their truth, or the harm that they may cause.
First and foremost I was absolutely delighted at Dodie Smith’s portrayal of country living. There are few things I love more than day-dreaming of a blissful, quiet life somewhere remote, with only the smell of flowers, birdsong, and the thought of bare-footed, early morning strolls through dew-soaked grass to trouble me. Even though Smith’s portrayal comes through the eyes of a somewhat dysfunctional family unit it still felt to me like a kind of absolute heaven, although perhaps a less than traditional view of heaven . I was so taken by the setting, from the second May and June arrived at the manor house, on a day in which the house and ground were engulfed by a stereotypical English downpour. The rain could not put me off, there was a magic in the dripping of the tree-lined driveway, and the impression of the foreboding, unloved Dower house, standing cold and resolute against the elements, and when the washed-out introduction gave way to pure, unadulterated spring bliss I was smitten. The whole book is brimming with lilac groves, quaint woodlands, blossoms, sundials and mounds and mounds of asparagus and strawberries – I loved every single second of it.
This is a book where characters are really central to the plot, I know characters are important in any story, but here it is the development of the characters that drive the story forward. Smith clearly had a talent for creating quirky, yet believable characters. Each and every character that passes through the estate has some kind of secret, inner passion or frustration. From the sensual Corinna, who is well and truly tired of waiting for saintly Hugh to make a move on her, to the quietly frustrated Robert, who, try as he might, cannot get his next novel on paper. Mildred inspires the release of these frustrations, allowing characters true desires to take form, while undoubtedly an expertly crafter character in her own right, her primary role is to serve as a catalyst for development in others.
In this way the story is very much in the moment, and in the experience, of two families shared existence. The day-to-day happenings in the Dower house are all at once endearing, humorous, envy-inducing, and on the whole utterly ridiculous. Think about it, could you really imagine your parents moving in with your aunt and uncle? Or yourself moving in with your sister/brother and their significant other? Regardless of how close knit a family you come from the situation is really rather odd. The book reads like an extended summer holiday – beautiful in its own way but very much temporary. I get the impression that, in the end, both families might actually quite like to return home.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Tale of Two Families, and would be interested to look up Smith’s other works in the future. I found the book to be a perfect, relaxing afternoon read – it left me feeling pleasantly fulfilled, and without the emotional torture than comes from a horrific book hangover. That said, if you like a bit more substance to your books, there is definitely potential to delve a little further into the hidden meanings behind characters’ actions. On the whole, would recommend, whether as a casual afternoon read or a more in depth book club selection.
I received a free copy of A Tale of Two Families from Hesperus Press in exchange for an honest review.