A novel about a young widow who struggles to raise her three children wisely, in the face of financial limitations, family interference, and her own possible needs for happiness. 1964.
First I gave Belgrave Square a try. Certainly not a D.E.S.—far from it, in fact—but still I had hope. All throughout the opening chapter, I kept turning the page and asking myself: Yes? No? By the turn of the twentieth page, I had come up with enough reasons to answer…No.
A D.E.S. reading experience, on the other hand, is effortless. For those who have yet to give her books a try: her books are the kind that you might cross paths with in a dusty, slightly smelly used book store. Eh, what’s this here? you might ask yourself. First, you’d read the copyright page (if you’re that kind of a let-me-get-oriented reader). The copyright date is probably sometime in the 1950s or ’60s. All right, you’ll give it a try. You flip past the title page, start reading the first chapter…
…And the next thing you know, someone’s huffing impatiently and trying to get around you in those narrow, cramped bookstore aisles. You look up, the spell momentarily broken, make your excuses, shuffle aside (where did that cramp in your leg come from?), and the fellow customer moves past. You look down at the book again and—wait a minute! How did that happen?! Page TWENTY??
It’s not that D.E.S. swoops in with a gruesome murder or a high-speed chase in those first pages. No, her storytelling arsenal is much more subtle…It’s like a sigh, opening a D.E.S. novel. I suppose some would consider her work “light reading”—it’s certainly not heavy—but to me it has a subtle depth, chiefly through the characters being so realistic and their situations so plausible. Her books have depth and meaning in the same way that life does, if you are receptive to it.
When I “met” Katherine Wentworth, the title character, it felt like I was meeting an instant friend. Married at 19 to an older man she was madly in love with, Katherine is now, roughly five years later, a widow. What’s more, her husband was a disinherited-aristocrat-turned-academic, so she has limited means with which to care for her teenage stepson and young twins.
One of my favorite things about Katherine, though, is that she is no damsel in distress. Rather, she’s a young but mature woman who understands the realities of life. Her children are clearly her foremost priority, and throughout the novel she checks in, so to speak, with the memory of her late husband Gerald. She does this not only out of grief, but to be sure that she is raising their children in a manner he would have approved of. Gerald is never directly in the novel, but through her reminiscences I felt I understood the beauty of their relationship and, therefore, the depth of her loss.
Very early in the novel, Katherine by chance runs into an old friend from school, whom she hasn’t seen in ages and who honestly sounds like she has never been that great of a friend. With her fancy outfits and make-up just so, Zilla is worlds apart from Katherine. Katherine is ready to let the encounter be nothing more than a chance meeting, but Zilla perseveres.
From then on the plot follows two main lines: one is Katherine’s (and her childrens’) relationship with Zilla, or, more accurately, their avoidance of this slightly-off woman while still managing to spend time with Zilla’s charming brother Alec, whom the children adore and Katherine befriends instantly.
At this point, still, there is no mention of romance (what a novelty!). Instead, the plot branches off in a totally different direction: Gerald’s father suddenly shows interest in his son’s family. What’s more, in his old age he has decided to make Gerald’s eldest child, Katherine’s stepson, heir to his estate and fortune.
If this book had a downside, I’d say it was this section. Katherine accompanies her stepson to the family’s country estate, in spite of her misgivings as to the intentions of the family. She knows little about them, but Gerald’s choices are an obvious reflection: he left home as quickly and permanently as he could. Knowing this, Katherine cannot let her stepson venture alone into the wasps’ nest. The family turns out to be very unpleasant indeed. The patriarch, above all, demonstrates undisputed control over the entire household. Her stepson is tempted by the grandfather’s promises of wealth, position, and security, and Katherine is torn as to how to advise him. Once again: what would Gerald say about it all?
I understood this section as a plot device, but still…they were all such unpleasant people. I wanted Katherine to be out of the discomfort, and her stepson out of harm’s way. Where had all the nice people gone??
Then she returns to Edinburgh and—oh yes, there they are! Her twins, for one, are adorable, and so true-to-life in how twins can be fundamentally different but still seem to exist in a world of their own. Alec proves to be equally as loveable, and we get to see more of him in the second half of the book, when Katherine and the children rent a house in the Scottish countryside for the summer. And yet…I kept wondering if Katherine was still too absorbed in the happiness she had with Gerald to accept a new possible means of happiness in her life.
So, for me, her independence was what truly made the novel. I liked that Katherine didn’t go throwing herself into the arms of a handsome, wealthy man as a means of avoiding her own problems. Often novels seem to present this as the final solution. Worse still is that cliched stalling technique: “I think I love him and I think he loves me but oh there is something I simply cannot tell him!” That’s not a storyteller being clever; that’s just annoying. I’m always like, “I’ve got an idea, why don’t you two just freaking TALK TO EACH OTHER.” As with friends, I’d rather be proud of a main character than annoyed with her.
So thank you, D.E.S., for that breath of fresh air—and, while we’re at it, I think I’ll spend my next summer in the beautiful Scottish countryside. (Ha, if only I could…)
Also, there’s a sequel! Spoiler alert: Katherine’s Marriage.