Thursday, January 8, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Meadowlands by Elizabeth Jeffrey

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

With the popularity of Downton Abbey, novels set in the time just before, during, and after WWI have seen an explosion in popularity. Or, at least, I’ve noticed a whole lot more of these novels on display and I’ve found myself picking up more and more of them.

WWI novels can deal with a variety of topics, not least of which is the war itself, but the most popular seem to be Downton Abbey-esque, using an Upstairs/Downstairs theme. They are inter-generational sagas set in grand English manors. The aristocracy have to deal not only with the war, but with the changes to their way of life. The lower classes have to deal with the war and with being poor and servile, but postwar changes bring them the possibility of upward mobility.

This all makes for interesting T.V. watching and for some fun novels. The latest one of these in my collection is Meadowlands by Elizabeth Jeffrey, to be released on April 1.

Meadowlands follows the fortunes of the Barsham family and their servant, Polly.

The novel has all the elements of these types of novels, both the typical characters and the usual plot points.

Sir George Barsham (father) is mostly absent, but he is a correct enough English gentleman. He spends his days in Parliament talking about the war with his cronies or with his mistress. (His marriage is not a happy one.) He treats his children with benign neglect. Lady Adelaide (mother) is a selfish, snobbish, demanding, and stupid woman with no understanding of politics who seems to not quite realize there is a war going on at all. Her children barely manage to put up with her, but she is mother, after all, so they laugh at her instead of arguing.

There are four children: two boys (twins) and two girls. Of the sons, one is bookish and a conscientious objector, who becomes a stretcher-bearer. The other is dashing and brave, who believes the Germans will be defeated easily. He joins the military and marches off to war. The eldest daughter, Gina, is beautiful and dutiful. She stays home and becomes involved with homefront causes. The younger is plump and frizzy-haired, but energetic. She zips off to become a nurse.

Polly is lady’s maid to Lady Adelaide and to the daughters. She also helps out around the house. And she helps Gina with her social work. (Gina’s main project is a soup kitchen for the local women who are (even more) impoverished because their husbands have gone off to war.) Polly is in love with the younger son, but knows she can do nothing but worship him from afar since his status puts him out of reach.

If you’ve read books in this genre before (or watched Downton Abbey), you can pretty much anticipate what will happen in this book. It’s short (224 pages) so it packs all its obligatory WWI drama into a rather compact structure, making each event seem a bit emotionally superficial. Each of the characters has a story, but only Polly and Gina are developed with any depth, so much of it has a rushed, glossed-over feel to it. Even Polly and Gina, although more fleshed out and very sympathetic, are somewhat one-dimensional.

This is a quick and easy book to read that does give the flavor of a Downton Abbey-like drama. However, I’ve found other books in this genre to be more engaging and more emotionally satisfying.