Review: The House at Tyneford, Natasha Solomons

The original title to this book, for those interested, is The Novel in the Viola, and then they changed it to The House at Tyneford (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) for US publication. At first I thought this was clearly a better title, and then as I read the book I thought that I could see why the publishers changed it for the US publication. In the end I could not decide which title was better. Your thoughts, dear readers?

The beginning: In early 1938, Elise and her family are making plans to leave Vienna. Her parents and sister can get American visas (I call bullshit; the mother plainly does not think she will be permitted to leave Vienna), but Elise cannot. Instead she takes a position as a parlor maid on a British estate house called Tyneford. She plans to work there for a few months and then join the rest of her family in America (I am absolutely certain her parents will not go to America but will instead be sent to concentration camps and die there).

The end (spoilers in this section only; highlight to read them): Hm, the page I flipped to is rather confusing. It appears that possibly Elise married one man and then he was killed in action and then she married again after a suitable period of wrenching grief, but it turned out the first guy was never dead at all? Further investigations are merited.

Okay, no, my original hypothesis was wrong. I had to flip forward and back a few times to verify this, but it turns out that Elise is engaged to marry Kit and then he gets killed in war I guess and she ends up marrying his father subsequently. Well, that is sort of weird. Elise knows it’s weird, but that doesn’t make me feel fully okay with how weird it is. But at least it is not the plot I proposed above. That plot is sort of silly.

The whole: Better written than a Kate Morton book, but still I think trying (not quite successfully) to punch above its weight. I enjoyed reading The House at Tyneford, and I read it all in one day. So it’s enjoyable and engaging. But I thought that it didn’t seem fully to know what it wanted to be. When I bought it, I expected it to be a comfort read. The plot sounded so extremely Eva-Ibbotson-y, and I love Eva Ibbotson and wish she had written even more books about Viennese Jewish girls coming to live in England during World War II.

However, there are too many sad things in it for it to be a comfort read. Eva Ibbotson’s books are, in a way, fantasies–you know at the outset that regardless of the Hitlerian backdrop, the wicked/shallow fiancees will be defeated, the proper people will marry each other, nobody will end up in a concentration camp, and nobody will be killed in the war. The worst thing that might happen is a very old person dying. Or a misfortune to a dog. That is how you know it’s a comfort book.

As a non-comfort¬† book, The House at Tyneford is too slight. The sad things that happened didn’t feel gutting to Elise, so of course they didn’t feel gutting to me either. I read through them feeling mildly saddened, and that was all. Elise describes the sadness she feels about being separated from her family, her love for Kit, and so on, but it never resonated with me. When the sad events occurred, I wasn’t invested enough in Elise’s hope of a happy outcome to mind that much.

In short, an enjoyable enough book that doesn’t really seem to know what it is. Having just finished reading Night Film–a book that is jauntily and weirdly and hilariously itself–this book felt like a very striking (in a bad way) contrast.

14 thoughts on “Review: The House at Tyneford, Natasha Solomons”

  1. I thought it was weird that she married Kit’s father too. I picked this one up because like you, I love Eva Ibbotson, but it didn’t quite hit the mark either as a fluffy read or as something more serious.

    1. I should have known it’s such a trap to try and read a book because you expect it to be like another book you loved. It seems like a good idea but I always get slammed by the expectation gap.

  2. First, I have to confess that I had to Do A Jenny with a book I am now reading, because I felt I was racing through too fast to see what happened without taking the time to enjoy what I was reading, so I DID A JENNY and skipped to the end and then came back. And of course as I did it I thought, I’m “doing a Jenny.” I hope you like that you are a neologism. Second, it is a source of ENDLESS fascination for me, this thing with the different covers and titles in the U.S. and abroad. WHY WHY WHY what does it mean? In my fantasy life, some marketer explains it all to me.

    1. Hahaha, did it work? Did it make you enjoy the book more?

      I think it must be to do with the marketing departments in different publishing houses. I mean the covers thing is just because different publishers have different design teams. But the titles, it has to be that the marketing team for the US publisher said, we hate this title, we can’t sell it with this title, let’s change it.

  3. I 100% agree with everything you say! Yes, this book tries to punch above its weight. Yes, it sort of wants to be Ibbotson-like but fails at that completely. I sort of enjoyed reading it but was left really frustrated in the end, thinking about how could it could have been given the premise.

    1. I think the sister got a visa through her husband? Like that he had gotten a job in America so that was his visa taken care of? And then the parents were lying about having gotten visas, so that the youngest daughter would leave Vienna without a fight.

  4. It seems that there is a whole genre of those not terribly amazing books (from a literary point of view) which are just plain sad and depressing. I believe people calling them ‘heart-breaking’ (like it’s a good thing) and have a good cry over them and somehow go through a catharsis. Not me. I find them just emotionally manipulative. Also as someone once said: “Where would all the mediocre writers be without Holocaust?” That’s why I think I don’t read those in between books. It’s either utter trash – comfort read where EVERYTHING ends well and everybody is happy, beautiful and rich or properly ambitious literature.

  5. So agree with Kinga’s comment. I don’t like these in-between books…be properly literary or properly trashy, that’s my thing.

    And how weird that the book title is so similar to Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton. I mean, couldn’t they be a little bit more creative with the book naming?

  6. I too recognised what you said about trying to punch above its weight – I enjoyed it a lot though. I prefer the original UK title definitely.

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