Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: Rutherford Park by Elizabeth Cooke

Rutherford Park
By: Elizabeth Cooke
Publisher: Berkley


Rutherford Park -- the Yorkshire seat of the Cavendish family -- is a bastion of English tradition and respectability. But its historic halls shelter dangerous secrets and passions both upstairs and down, a simmering vein of tension that belies the family's respectable exterior. The dawning of 1914 and the promise of Christmas and New Year's finds certain members of the family and household staff in a reflective mood, hungry for a change that they cannot define, the scope and impact of which they cannot fathom. After twenty years of marriage, Octavia finds herself chafing against the restrictions marriage to William has placed upon her life. Hailing from a family who owed their fortunes to wool mills, Octavia once dreamed of a love match, only to find herself trapped in a marriage as stale as the traditions that hold Rutherford Hall moribund. Her son, Harry, longs to shed his responsibilities as heir and become a pilot, while his sister, Louisa, dreams of her upcoming season and hopes for thrilling romantic assignations, with nary a thought of the cost, safely ensconced in her family's aura of unassailable respectability. But as the new year rises old secrets come to light as a woman from William's past could compromise everything he's built thanks to his iron control, while below stairs a housemaid's broken heart threatens to shatter the line of demarcation between the upstairs family and those who serve them. For those who call Rutherford Hall home, 1914 finds the once-staid house a cauldron of simmering passions and tensions, and all it will take is one small spark of rebellion or tragedy to set it alight, changing a way of life forever.

Ever since Downton Abbey debuted, capturing my -- and a large portion of the British-loving public's -- imagination and renewing interest in upstairs, downstairs tales (like the self-same show that once enthralled the public for five years), there has been a boom in fiction of this ilk, with varying results. Last year I discovered Phillip Rock's Greville trilogy, truly superlative storytelling which to my mind perfectly captures the flavor of such dramas on the page -- and in many respects exceeds its filmic counterparts in characterization and story-craft. Rutherford Park looked to be the most promising successor to the gold standard set by Rock's novels that I've encountered yet, and to some extent meets that mark -- but with mixed results.

Cooke is an accomplished wordsmith, capable of a gorgeous turn of phrase, oft-times deftly evoking the glamour and grime of this bygone age with her carefully-crafted prose. But her biggest strength is also this novel's greatest drawback, as Cooke's dreamy, evocative prose slows the narrative pace to a sluggish crawl. There is a wealth of potentially compelling material within its pages, but her descriptive, narrative-heavy storytelling -- while setting the scene in a serviceable manner -- advances the storytelling in fits and starts. This is a relatively short novel, clocking in at only 333 pages, divided into only ten chapters, yet it felt in desperate need of trimming in order to advance to the "meat" of the storyline -- the various characters standing on the precipice of great change, and their world hurtling towards the Great War. And with only ten chapters, ranging in length from roughly twenty to sixty (SIXTY!!) pages, the nuggets of compelling storytelling material find themselves buried within pages of prose that, while often beautifully rendered, nevertheless slows the forward momentum of the storyline to a crawl.

That said, those who love Downton Abbey-esque storylines of this type will find their perseverance rewarded by this book's final third, where the characters and plotlines thus far introduced come to fruition. By far the best and strongest aspect of Rutherford Park is its examination of aristocratic family life, and Cooke's exploration of how the strict social structure and values of the day could fracture relations between tradition-bound parents and their modern-minded children, foreshadowing the impact of the war on their family and class. My favorite storyline (SPOILERS) involves Octavia's affair with the American John Gould, and how that forces her husband to awaken to the realization of what his never-yielding insistence on clinging to the status quo might cost him in terms of family and legacy. While I'm dying for Gould to get a happy ending,what I loved is how their brief affair illustrates the importance of working on one's marriage and never taking it for granted. Both Octavia and William are arguably culpable, but the crises they face relative to their relationship and in the lives of their children serve as a powerful illustration of the importance of communication and of never taking one's closest relationships for granted. Because in the volatile world facing the family, survival depends not on clinging to what always has been, but facing the future under-girded by a foundation relational development as one's best hope for a lasting legacy. 

Despite its sluggish pace, Rutherford Park is an often engaging novel about a world on the cusp of profound change. In fact, one could possibly argue that the novel's somewhat cumbersome pacing ultimately serves to underscore Cooke's larger purpose -- setting the Cavendish family, and the servants in their orbit, on a trajectory from leisurely tradition to change, spurred by the crucible of war that will leave its impact on every level of society. The novel builds towards a crisis in Louisa's life that serves as an impetus to bring husband and wife, parents and children together with a level of honesty that was previously unfathomable, setting the stage for future dramatic developments that hold great promise. Cooke is a talented writer with a wonderful feel for the time period, and while the execution of this novel prevents me from naming it a favorite among the ranks of Downton-type fiction, I am looking forward to seeing where Cooke takes her characters next. 

About the book:

Snow had fallen in the night, and now the great house, standing at the head of the valley, seemed like a five-hundred-year old ship sailing in a white ocean…

For the Cavendish family, Rutherford Park is much more than a place to call home. It is a way of life marked by rigid rules and lavish rewards, governed by unspoken desires…

Lady of the house Octavia Cavendish lives like a bird in a gilded cage. With her family’s fortune, her husband, William, has made significant additions to the estate, but he too feels bound—by the obligations of his title as well as his vows. Their son, Harry, is expected to follow in his footsteps, but the boy has dreams of his own, like pursuing the new adventure of aerial flight. Meanwhile, below stairs, a housemaid named Emily holds a secret that could undo the Cavendish name.

On Christmas Eve 1913, Octavia catches a glimpse of her husband in an intimate moment with his beautiful and scandalous distant cousin. She then spies the housemaid Emily out in the snow, walking toward the river, about to make her own secret known to the world. As the clouds of war gather on the horizon, an epic tale of longing and betrayal is about to unfold at Rutherford Park… 

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