Friday, August 5, 2016

Tumbledown Manor by Helen Brown

Reviewed by Jeanne

Lisa Trumperton Katz’s milestone birthday party is quite the surprise.  It begins promisingly enough, with unexpected appearances by her sister and son, both of whom have flown in to New York from Australia, and her daughter from California.  Her husband Jake makes a loving toast.

An enormous bouquet of red roses arrives, which is not at all Jake’s usual penny-pinching style.  Lisa is thrilled.  And then she reads the card which begins, “To my darling Belle.”

Let’s just say the party doesn’t end well.

After struggling to come to terms with the divorce, Lisa decides that she needs to reinvent herself.  She’s going to leave New York and return home to Australia.  After all, she is a novelist; she can write anywhere.  So she packs her bags and heads home, only to find home isn’t exactly the way she remembered it.  Her sister is encouraging to buy a house in a new development, but Lisa can’t work up any enthusiasm for that.  Instead, she wants to see Trumperton Manor, a house owned by her great -grandfather. She’s seen photos of it, faded black and white shots with glimpses of her beloved grandfather, but she feels the need to see it in person.  It turns out not to be quite what she expected.  It’s big, all right, but it’s very run down. 

 It’s also for sale.  

Against the advice of almost everyone, Lisa decides to buy the house and rehabilitate it.  Her decision is met by disbelief, derision, and laughter.  The town folk see her not as a local girl come home but as a New Yorker unused to life in rural Australia and are certain she won’t last a month.  The hunky landscaper makes her feel lumpy and inadequate as he seems to be making all the decisions about the property. The neighbors seem to be actively shunning her.  Then there’s the one eyed cat and the wild cockatoo. . . .

Having read two nonfiction memoirs by Helen Brown, I was really looking forward to finally reading her first novel.  I admit I was a bit disappointed at first but I wasn’t sure why.  Then I realized that I was missing the personal tone of her nonfiction books, which always made me feel as if was having a chat with an old friend.  I also found myself looking at certain characters and scenes and wondering if they were fictionalized versions of parts of Ms. Brown’s life.  Once I took away those distractions, I found myself enjoying this tale of a middle aged author and cancer survivor who isn’t as sophisticated or glib as she would like to be, who worries about her children but who tries not to meddle, but who also is determined to stand on her own two feet.  There’s humor, romance, a bit of mystery, and a sense of satisfaction to see someone learn how strong and independent she can be.

One of my favorite lines comes fairly early in the book, when her sister is trying to dissuade Lisa from buying the house because it isn’t practical or sensible.  Lisa replies that “I don’t have the luxury of not taking risks.” 

Know what?  She’s right.

I also appreciated the strong sense of place:  since Lisa had lived in New York City for years, she sees the landscape with more of an outsider’s perspective.  The summer heat practically shimmers off the page. The animal characters are vivid—a big plus for me—and I got a kick out of Lisa’s writing career.  (She’s writing a trilogy about the Bronte sisters, giving them all a bit of spicy romance in the process.)

This is a light and enjoyable novel that would make a good summer book. I also highly recommend her other two books, Cleo and Cats and Daughters:  They Don’t Always Come When Called. (I think I have cornered the local market on copies of Cleo; I've given at least a half dozen copies as gifts as well as copies of Cats and Daughters.  And yes, I have already gotten two copies of Tumbledown Manor  to give as a gift as well.)

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