Thursday, September 6, 2012

Park Lane, by Francis Osborne. Vintage Books, 2012

This book follows two women who live in a mansion on Park Lane: Bea, the single, recently jilted, daughter who still lives at home, and Grace, working as a housemaid despite her secretarial training because her lower class, northern accent bars her from London office work. Both Grace and Bea have secrets; Grace has told her family that she’s doing respectable office work rather than being a maid; Bea is joining her aunt as a follower of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, while Bea’s mother has long supported the non-violent suffragists. Bea and Grace are at the opposite ends of the social hierarchy in the house- and personality. Bea is an excitement junkie; loving fast cars and motorcycles, the thrilling fear at the suffragette rallies, fast ambulance driving practically on the front, and meeting a man who is ‘not of her class’. Grace seeks safety and worries constantly about not living up to family expectations.

Divided into years, the story covers 1914 to 1923 (with a gap between 1918 and 1923). This is a tumultuous age in England; WW I, socialism and the women’s suffrage movement all changed the lives of rich and poor alike. There is violence at the suffragette rallies, incredible loss of life in the trenches of WW I, post traumatic stress for both men and women (who drive ambulances in the war zones and nurse the torn up men), class differences come to mean a *little* less, and women gain more freedom well before they get the vote.

I enjoyed the book- I find the era fascinating (while a fan of Downton, I first was introduced to the era when PBS ran ‘The Forsyte Saga’ way back around 1970) and Osborne knows the time intimately- she had to, to write the brilliant biography ‘The Bolter’- and she has a great power of description. But I feel the book could have been better. Bea comes off as rather hard and it’s difficult to sympathize with her. Grace likable enough, but passages about things she goes through that should make us terrified for her are a bit flat. One character who connects the two women, Grace’s brother Michael, seems like he was created only to connect them- he’s introduced as a socialist, a budding writer, but he doesn’t really do anything with it. A subplot about sneaking books out of the house to him starts out extremely tense but is allowed to peter out to nothing. Because of these faults, I’m afraid I can only give the book four stars. But remember that this is Osborne’s first fiction book- when that’s taken into consideration, it’s pretty great. 

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