In the summer of 1933, Alice Eveleigh finds herself whisked off to the Gloucester countryside in shame. Pregnant but unmarried, she flees London at the behest of her parents with a false story of a dead husband so she may have the baby in secret under the care of her mother’s childhood friend, the housekeeper of secluded Fiercombe Manor. Upon arrival, Alice discovers a nearly abandoned valley where the two remaining servants treat her with care and friendliness in one moment, and unsettling anxiety and tightlipped secrecy in another. In alternating chapters, we are also presented with the story of Lady Elizabeth Stanton, the former mistress of Fiercombe Manor and the now demolished Stanton House. As Alice reads Elizabeth’s diary and picks up on hints of unspeakable past tragedies, the reader joins Alice on her quest to discover what really happened to her predecessor. The arrival of Tom, heir to the estate and nephew of Elizabeth, complicates matters as Alice struggles with both her growing feelings for him and the strange connection she feels with the dead Elizabeth, whose diary is filled with fears regarding her final pregnancy and her increasingly distant husband. What led her and her daughter to disappear without a trace while her husband fled to London and drank himself to death? What will become of Alice after the birth of her baby in a world where single motherhood is nearly impossible?
While I may be giving you the impression that this is some sweeping gothic romance, it absolutely is not: One of the most beautiful things about this book was how understated it was. What could have been a straightforward mad-wife-in-the-attic-type gothic tale was instead a rich story of human frailty and how tragedy and misunderstanding can ignite further suffering and despair. It was haunting, moving, and thought provoking, with enough suspense to keep the pages turning [even though you were supposed to be somewhere five minutes ago]. It was one of those books that enveloped me and remained in my thoughts days later as I pondered society’s catastrophic failure to understand mental health as well as the question of what constitutes madness or sanity. My only real complaint with this book was the ending: while satisfying, it was just too abrupt. For most of the novel, the pace was comfortable and rich in mood and characterization, but in the end, everything resolved itself in a couple of pages that were far too matter-a-fact and I found myself wanting more.
Riordan, Kate. Fiercombe Manor. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. 4.5 gloriously sweeping stars. (Originally published in the UK as The Girl in the Photograph by Penguin UK, 2015)