Monday, October 28, 2013
Review: The Best of Daughters by Dilly Court
The Best of Daughters
By: Dilly Court
Publisher: Arrow Books
As the eldest daughter and with a mama intent on improving her family's social position, Daisy knew what was expected of her, no matter how it chafed -- to behave as a lady ought, and to marry soon and above all, marry well. But in 1912 Daisy's world stands on the brink of profound change, and she cannot resist the siren call of the women's suffragette movement and its heady message of empowerment. Daisy believes that campaigning to see women granted the vote is a worthy passion, one that will allow her to make an indelible mark on the world, and fulfill her closely held dreams of independence. For while ambition outside of marriage may be unconventional in a woman, it is the future Daisy craves, far preferable to marrying her childhood best friend -- the wealthy and highly respectable Rupert -- just because their mothers have willed that it will be so.
But Daisy's dreams of activism and her mother's of an advantageous marriage crumble when the their fortune vanishes and the family is left swindled, their reputation in tatters. Forced into "exile" into a modest country home, far from the never-ending whirl of London's social scene, Daisy's eyes are opened to a world she never dreamed existed, filled with social and professional possibilities she would have never known had her family remained ensconced in their privileged London lifestyle. Even as Daisy puts her dreams on hold to care for her family, her mother continues to push for a marriage to Rupert, made all the more critical as it promises to restore her family to solvency. As Daisy weighs her heart's desires the world catapults toward an all-encompassing conflict that threatens to to not only rob her of her dreams but destory any hope she has of a future. When the specter of the Great War arrives at Daisy's door, she's left with the greatest choice of all -- to embrace the brave new world being forged in the crucible of conflict, to allow herself to forge a new path of her own making, or to remain forever a pawn in the plans of others, powerless to direct the destiny of her heart and life.
When the opportunity to review The Best of Daughters was presented I jumped at the chance. Court is apparently a best-selling novelist in Britain, and a quick perusal of her novels on Amazon promised soapy, engrossing, historical reads -- essentially a Masterpiece costume drama in novel form. Daisy's story dovetails nicely with the first two seasons of Downton Abbey and is tailor-made to appeal to fans of the soapy, Fellowes-penned drama and those of a similar ilk. But what The Best of Daughters lacks that its filmic counterpart has in spades is sharp, compelling characterization. For all one may take issue with Downton's plotlines, Fellowes has a proven knack for crafting buzz-worthy television with characters that, love them or hate them, viewers respond to passionately.
While I liked Daisy and applauded her desire to forge her own path in a world that proscribed strict social roles for women, Court glosses over Daisy's character arc, failing to provide any real depth to Daisy's struggle to balance her dreams with her familial obligations until the novel's final act. The cross-class "romance" with Bowman, an appealing rake and auto mechanic, is little more than a blatant retread of the Downton Sybil/Branson romance, only lacking any of the pairing's character or relational development, not to mention chemistry. For an allegedly critical turning point in her life, Daisy's "scandalous" relationship with Bowman falls flat, leaving one to wonder for most of the novel if Rupert wouldn't be better off without Daisy after all.
Although Daisy's characterization is uneven at best, Court's secondary characters shine in comparison. Beatrice, Daisy's spoiled younger sister, develops a surprising romance with a farmer (horrors!), and Daisy's unorthodox friendship with her fellow suffragette-turned-maid Ruby is a bright spot of occasional humor, but more than that it serves as an effective vehicle for examining each woman's otherwise wildly disparate lifestyle. While The Best of Daughters falls into the narrative trap of telling/info-dumping vs. showing/nuanced characterization, what Court does best here is suggest -- at a high-level -- what a turbulent period of change her characters endured, and the inherent possibilities in the same for women like Daisy who dared to dream of something more. I also appreciated how she brought to light aspects of history that receive little attention in either the general historical record or in fiction of this type, such as the work of the FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) during the Great War.
While The Best of Daughters lacked the nuance and emotional depth I crave in historical fiction, I am nonetheless thrilled to have discovered a new-to-me author whose work covers often ignored time periods and possesses a laudable scope and ambition, though it may falter in the realization of the latter. Through the lens of readjusted expectations, having how experienced one of Court's novels, I'd characterize her work as historical fiction lite -- a soapy, glossy look at a tumultuous time, with an ambition seen more in films than popular fiction in my experience. Though the narrative is occasionally cumbersome -- too little showing the development of characters and relevant plot points -- Court touches on a variety of issues that readers with an interest in women's history will find fascinating -- from the FANYs to the eroding social barriers that allowed a friendship to develop between Daisy and Ruby. While not quite captivated I am intrigued, and will definitely explore Court's fiction further!
About the book:
Despite her privileged upbringing, Daisy Lennox has always longed to make something of her life.
She is drawn to the suffragette movement, but when her father faces ruin they are forced to move to the country and Daisy's first duty is to her family.
Here she becomes engaged to her childhood friend -- a union both families have dreamed of.
But, on the eve of their wedding, war is declared, and Daisy knows her life will never be the same again.
*My thanks to TLC Book Tours for the review opportunity, and my deepest apologies for being so late with my scheduled post! I'm still digging out from falling behind on review commitments over the summer.