When I was offered a free review copy of this book, I was drawn to it by its Swiss setting reminiscent of Anita Brookner’s Booker-Prize-winning Hotel du Lac, which I loved (both the book and the film).
So did Riddell, it seems, because she mentions the book several times in the course of the novel, including sending some characters on a tour of the hotel in which Brookner’s is set. But let’s park that thought here and leave it, because ultimately I found the comparison unhelpful. They’re very different writers and very different stories, not least because Brookner’s story is about a single woman on her own, and Riddell’s is focused on a large and dysfunctional family.
Good Opening Premise
The story starts with great promise, bringing together four siblings and their widowed mother in the hotel. It’s clear from the outset that the reunion heralds a major turning point in the family dynamic. Indeed many changes are revealed, with some surprising twists and turns throughout the book, before its satisfying and fulfilling ending.
The characters were well drawn, although I’d have liked more explanation as to why the four siblings were so different in characters when they shared the same parents and background.
I was especially drawn to Madalena, the matriach of the family, and her troubled granddaughter Lucy, both strong yet flawed in their own way. I really cared about them both from the start. I also very much liked the Sowerby sisters, surprisingly the only hotel guests whom we really see much of, considering that a large chunk of the novel takes place in a hotel.
The other characters were well drawn (I found the scene where Vienne tells the Sowerby sisters about her life as a concert pianist especially interesting), but I didn’t warm to any of them apart from the very minor characters Karl and Johann, or feel close to them. At times I felt the author’s style put a bit of distance between the reader and the characters.
There were also a few circumstances that struck me as unlikely, but I won’t say which for fear of spoiling the plot. But I come from a very close family which is most unlike the one described here, so maybe that’s just me! Not that we don’t have our flaws, but we’re certainly not capable of maintaining the level of secrecy and distance, emotional or geographical, inherent in Riddell’s fictional family.
Enjoyable Sense of Place
I very much enjoyed the sense of place, with the action in various parts of Switzerland, on lakes, at the lakeside, in cities and in mountains. I also liked how the author gradually conveyed a sense of what it’s like to be Swiss, and the Swiss national character.
In summary, this book will be enjoyed by readers who like intelligent, character-driven sagas about contemporary families working out their differences; who prefers slow and thoughtful stories rather than action-packed page-turners; and who is interested in Swiss society.
For more information about Jane Riddell and her books, visit her website: www.quietfiction.com