I feel like I'm always telling the same story. You know the one about the book that somebody pitched me for review that I accepted, and once it arrived in the mail I had second thoughts and wondered what on earth had taken hold of me that I accepted it, and blah, blah blah and so on? Well, I've done it again with Rutherford Park. I'm always in for good historical fiction, but not so much the Lords and Ladies cavorting about with their awesome wealth and occasionally scandalous problems. I've never gotten around to cultivating an interest in Downton Abbey either (though I've been told in no uncertain terms that I should) which, apparently, would put me right in the demographic that would have this book marketed to them. That said, despite it being the sort of book with the Lords and Ladies and scandals marketed toward an audience of a show I don't watch, something about Rutherford Park caught my eye and landed it on my doorstep. Perhaps the fact that it takes place in the moments before the outbreak of World War I, perhaps it's just been a few minutes since I'd read any good historical fiction and I was feeling weak. Happily, the story ends (as it usually ends) with my enjoying the book a good deal more than I expected to when I was busy second-guessing my decision.
Rutherford Park is the palatial home of Lord William and Lady Octavia Cavendish. Nestled in the Yorkshire countryside, the peaceful-appearing estate is an island unto itself, but the secrets that run deep among the Cavendish family and their staff and the coming of war threaten to fracture the idyllic, if suddenly fragile, life the aristocratic family has come to know. As World War I looms on the horizon William struggles to maintain his family and their refuge at Rutherford Park even as his nearest and dearest seem to be moving beyond his grasp.
In Rutherford Park, Cooke allows us to sneak a peek beneath the proper and orderly surface of the Cavendish family and their estate. William takes comfort in order and propriety, but his wife Octavia chafes at the bonds of what is considered appropriate behavior for the lady of the house. She longs to show her love effusively, to walk barefoot in the grass, to cuddle her children instead of resigning them to the staff to raise, but William despite being well-meaning is embarrassed by her improper behavior. The couple's children, Harry, who wants nothing more than to fly away from an indiscretion that ended in tragedy; naïve Louisa, who is about to make her debut in society, and Charlotte, the youngest daughter who might just be a budding activist for change are each slipping away from William and Octavia in their own ways. As William rushes to gather his family back to himself and to the safety of Rutherford Park in the days before the war, past indiscretions and current scandals threaten to undo the life he and Octavia have built together.
In such a book as Rutherford Park, it might be tempting for the author to focus solely on the Cavendish family. Their feelings and foibles certainly could a whole book make. However, Cooke makes the wise decision to take on the estate as a whole exploring the lives of the many servants who keep the wealthy Cavendish household up and running. From the housemaids, Mary and Emily who made their escape from the dangers of mill work only to come face to face with other heartbreaks, to the footman, Nash, who delights in the occasional book of poetry pilfered from William's library, to the farrier, Jack Armitage, who shared an unexpected and perplexing moment with one of the Cavendish daughters, Cooke breathes life into the whole breadth of characters that make Rutherford Park tick. The result is a book that quietly explores the beginning of the end of a way of life through the co-mingled lives of a family whose wealthy way of life is becoming unsuitable and unsustainable and the people whose existence as mere servants is slowly drawing to a close.
Rutherford Park is an unexpectedly deep and wide portrait of not just a family but an entire estate's worth of people. Rather than focus on drama and scandal, Cooke makes the excellent decision to zero in on her characters' inner lives. As a result, characters both major and minor leap off the page, and much to Cooke's credit she manages to make very nearly all of her cast sympathetic to readers who might not agree with their actions but who might well commiserate with their feelings and motivations. If you are a lover of historical fiction or can appreciate a few great character studies, you'll find much to enjoy in Rutherford Park. Recommended!
(Thanks to the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group/Penguin, for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)