At a recent workshop, reviewers were advised to avoid plot details and instead give their readers a snappy four or five word summary to convey the mood of the book. Here goes:
“Mad Men meets Miss Marple.”
That’s as close as I can get to try to convey how the 1960 setting permeates the book: there is much imbibing, cigarette smoking, and marital discord, but there’s also a gentle spinsterish (more –ish, but not many know that) lady who is one of the first to suspect foul play in the death of Charlotte Crawley, pillar of the community and infuriating busybody with kleptomaniac tendencies.
The book is told from several different points of view: Gerald Bradley, minister of the Church of the Regeneration; his wife, Anne; their seven year old daughter, Katherine; and Lucy Wary, an older member of the congregation.
I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to enjoy this book or not. I’m actually not quite sure why I picked it up, except vague memories of good reviews. The cover is rather bare bones, bright red with a sketch of sensible shoes and the author and title. I wasn’t sure what it was meant to convey, but on the other hand I’m glad it didn’t have a generic cozy mystery cover (usually showing a living room, tea or coffee cups, perhaps a quilt or a pet) because then I would have assumed it was, well, a generic cozy.
The beginning wasn’t promising. The marriage between Gerald and Anne is fracturing. Anne seems cold and remote to Gerald, silently rebuking him at every turn. To Anne, Gerald is oblivious at best. Given the time period and Gerald’s position, divorce isn’t contemplated but neither is reconciliation, at least on Anne’s part. Gerald does care for his parishioners and wants to lead social change in the community—hiring Frank, an Italian ex-con as a handyman, and trying to raise funds for a camp for underprivileged children—but he is more involved in the “big picture” than with individuals. Also he pays more lip service to religion than actual belief; Anne says frankly that she is an atheist even as she tried to dutifully fulfill her obligations as minister’s wife.
Neither character appealed to me nor did I relish the idea of spending a lot of time in their company. Their young daughter is bewildered by it all and I felt sorry for her. Fortunately, Lucy Wray was a delight and the author’s excellent job of conveying the feel of the times was enough to keep me reading. I’m glad I did. Cunningham has created complex characters who gradually reveal themselves for better or for worse. The theme of faith is somewhat muted, given the fact that a minister is a lead character, but there are glimpses of supernatural guidance at times—or rather, what characters may perceive as supernatural guidance. Lucy and Katherine both love the Narnia books, and I enjoyed the bits of folklore that popped up occasionally. The supporting characters add zest, including Elsa the Teutonic church organist and her Scottish nemesis, Amos; Elsa’s partner, the fragile Clara; Teresa Lomangino, Frank’s strong and lively wife; Rick Foster, a handsome politician; and even Charlotte Crawley, who becomes more sympathetic in death than she ever appeared in life.
I ended up enjoying this book a great deal so I was pleased to hear there is a sequel in the works.