It's a coming of age story! And a love story! It's set during World War II! It was shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize (my go to prize!), and I'm reading it for Orange July! By rights it should have been a book that I loved, but I have to admit that it might not have been the book for me.
"I wonder what becomes of the Annas of this world."
"They find it hard to meet anyone who will take life as seriously as they do."
The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison starts off with 8-year-old Anna Sands being evacuated, like many other London children during World War II, to the English countryside to escape the impending German attack. Anna pictures herself on a sunshine-filled beach holiday but instead finds herself in a school set up in a sprawling Yorkshire mansion, Ashton Park. There, wealthy, childless Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton are attempting to rejuvenate their lives and their love by surrounding themselves with children in need of their help. During the course of her time at Ashton Park that spans several years of the war, Anna finds herself much more entangled in Thomas's tragic love story than even she will ever understand.
The novel gets off to a promising start with Anna embarking on a new adventure. Alison's lush prose evokes a magical, if practical, refuge in the far-reaching grounds of Ashton Park. Anna is taken with Elizabeth, who is all beauty and poise in public, and with Thomas, whose gentle demeanor and impeccable manners cover over a lifetime of pain and heartbreak. As the story wears on, Anna begins to glimpse the darker underbelly of life with a couple whose union was fragile at best, and put under stress by Thomas's struggle with polio, his inability to walk afterwards, and finally the couple's inability to have children. It seems that Anna is always on hand to witness the unfolding of events as the couple disintegrates and each begins to search for fulfillment from others. Elizabeth throws herself at any man that might impregnate her, while Thomas discovers a love that stimulates his heart and his mind in a way he never believed possible.
By its midpoint, the book had begun to frustrate me. Alison's writing is technically beautiful, but at times it seemed an excess of words kept me from ever truly engaging with the characters, who never really came to life, or becoming involved with their situations. A steady stream of commentary from an overintrusive narrative voice built up a wall of words that made the mid-section of The Very Thought of You, the part that depends on your sympathies to succeed, boring and trite. Instead of being captivated at Thomas's joy at finding his one true, if forbidden, love, I was eager to put the chapters of their mooning over each other with an army of true love cliches (fluttering limbs, a world lit up with love, the pressing of flowers into books with sentimental messages) behind me. That, and Anna's popping up at the most inopportune and inappropriate of times to bear witness to adult drama well beyond her years was bothersome to me.
In its final chapters, The Very Thought of You gains back some ground as it follows its characters into a later time. Thomas's lasting love and the profound impact the wartime years at Ashton Park had on Anna well into her adulthood are far more compelling. While I didn't love the book, by the time I turned the last page, I'd arrived at a fragile acceptance of the story's imperfect, broken characters who so often failed in their search for love. The Very Thought of You, is, as it promised to be, a haunting story, but never for the reasons you might expect.
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(Thanks to Cristina at Atria Books for sending me a copy for review!)