In brief: A dual narrative story of Maggie and her grandmother, Lillian. Both feel trapped in mistakes made in the past but could Lillian’s fateful summer in the 1950s hold the key to Maggie’s future?
The good: The story has everything I want: a dual narrative, a mysterious mansion and the unravelling of many secrets.
The not-so-good: Unfortunately I had to work, eat and sleep while reading The Peacock Summer.
Why I chose it: Sounded great- thank you to Hachette for the copy.
Setting: Predominantly small village England
Rating: 10 out of 10
If you’re a fan of Kate Morton, you will simply adore Hannah Richell’s The Peacock Summer. The novel contains everything a reader needs for a cracking good time, from a crumbling old mansion with dusty relics and closed off sections to family secrets that take generations to come to the fore. There are two narratives between present day and the 1950s, with alternating chapters very cleverly episodes between the two. Add in characters with multiple motives and flaws and it’s a recipe for a story you can’t stop reading.
The writing is beautiful, evoking the feel of the once beautiful house, now a dusty, unstable shell of glory. The story opens as Lillian, alone and frail becomes ill while granddaughter Maggie is drunk on Bondi Beach. Hearing of her grandmother’s illness, Maggie immediately comes home to be with her. Unfortunately it also brings back the shame of why she left the village in disgrace. As Lillian’s mind wanders, the reader is taken back to a glorious summer, commencing with the summer party at Cloudesley. Lillian is the wife of Charles Oberon, which isn’t as lovely as it sounds. Their marriage isn’t as sparkly as it seems and when she meets artist Jack, he seems to know this. Jack accepts Charles’ challenge/request to paint a beautiful room to hold his collection of the weird and wonderful (which is what made his family rich). Over the summer, Jack and Lillian become closer and fall in love. But it’s not so simple when Lillian feels a duty to stepson Albie and her sister, Helena. Maggie too, feels like she must do the best for Lillian and Cloudesley. It’s not easy when the village is against her and there is no money to restore the house.
While the overview of the plot above may make it seem simple, to read it is to marvel in the gorgeously constructed sentences describing the house and that glorious summer. I can picture the house right down to the tiny details of the ornaments in both its glory and its downfall. The summer is described too in such detail that you can’t help but feel warm and golden (not easy when it’s the depths of an Australian winter). I really felt part of this book, like Cloudesley and Lillian had taken me under their wing. It was also fascinating to read each chapter as Richell has cleverly linked a phrase or a description between Lillian and Maggie’s youth. Maggie thinks she knows her grandmother, but it’s obvious early on that her childhood observations are incorrect. As the story progresses, it becomes blatantly clear just how different perception versus reality is. In Maggie’s own life, her perception of what others think has stopped her from progressing forward to be who she wants to be. Can Maggie forgive herself and gain the courage to give her grandmother’s dear Cloudesley the attention she feels it deserves?
Both Lillian and Maggie are flawed characters, which makes it even more interesting to see Lillian from the pedestal Maggie has put her on. It goes to show that we don’t really know another’s motivations and actions, particularly in hindsight. Lillian too, makes several assumptions that could have changed her whole life if she had acted differently. Jack is a darling, but his principles when up against Lillian’s are very different. Did Lillian make the right decision? Did Maggie? Did Albie? That’s up to the reader to debate and try to make decisions about. It’s a story that will stick with the reader for a long, long time.