I didn’t used to read much WWII historical fiction, but for some reason, ever since The Book Thief, I’ve been on a bit of a roll. The latest book to catch my attention was The Very Thought of You by Rosie Allison. It was shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for fiction and has received some nice reviews.
However, my reaction to this book was mixed.
Anna is sent to Ashton Park in the North Yorkshire Moors. Thomas Ashton and his wife Elizabeth have opened up their large estate to 86 children. They’ve hired staff and turned it into a boarding school, a safe haven. Anna is homesick but settles into her new life at the school. There, she develops an admiration for the patient, nurturing Mr. Ashton – an admiration that will influence the rest of her life.
Thomas and his wife have a difficult relationship. Thomas is a courteous, gentle, and thoughtful man. However, he was crippled by polio and now is confined to a wheelchair. Elizabeth is beautiful and passionate. Unfortunately, she is barren and more than anything else, she wants a child. Disappointment has made her hard and brittle.
Their relationship has been strained to the breaking point by these unresolvable crises. If they had loved strongly enough they might have been brought closer together by their mutual sorrow, but now, their marriage is falling apart.
The book follows the characters over four years of the war and beyond, up to the present. Anna is a confused and reluctant witness to the disintegration of the Ashton’s marriage. The story examines infidelity from just about every imaginable angle.
And so this is where I end up with mixed feelings. It’s an interesting enough story about flawed people and a study of marriages going awry. But I was expecting a war time love story. (It’s billed as "not just a love story but a story about love.") This seemed more a story of lack of love than a beautiful love story to me. There was a love story buried in there somewhere, but it wasn’t one I found particularly inspiring. It was sort of...well...tawdry. And the wartime setting was just background. The characters could have been just as miserably trapped in their marriages in any setting with a little tweaking of the plot.
However, Anna’s story was nevertheless compelling. I was surprised, and a little disheartened, to see how it all played out in her life after she left Ashton Park. For me, this book was more interesting as a study of the ripple effects of infidelity than as a love story.
There is a lot to recommend The Very Thought of You, even if I did find it downbeat and a rather depressing view of human romantic relationships.