Review: The Summer House Party by Caro Fraser. Head of Zeus. Ltd.
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, Mr. Gershwin’s song informs us. This story begins in summer of 1936 when the days are gloriously hot, clothes are loose and light, and life becomes a little simpler. The seeds of this epic five-part story are sown in the elegant country house party in England between the two world wars,
Part One of the book concerns the 1936 house party and its immediate aftermath. Sonia, wife of famed artist Henry Haddon, is hosting a house party for a varied group of individuals. We first meet handsome young Dan Ranscombe, godson of Sonia and Henry, who accepts the invitation to stay at their spacious country home and meet a number of agreeable people. Dan was especially keen to enlarge on his acquaintance with Meg, Sonia’s niece. There were also Paul and Diana Latimer, brother and sister, quite wealthy and eminently social. Dan himself is Cambridge-educated and working as a local journal’s art correspondent, a job he finds marginally interesting and low paying. There is an older couple, poet Gerald Cunliffe and his fussy wife. Two other younger guests are Eve Meyerson, whom Dan knows as a fellow journalist, and a protégé of Sonia’s, Charles Asher. Once at the Haddon home, Dan meets Avril, Sonia and Henry’s 6-year-old daughter, and the lovely sixteen-year-old Madeleine, daughter of an old friend of Sonia’s, who serves as a general caretaker and nanny for Avril.
The interplay of characters evolves into an array of dramas that no one had envisioned at the start. Notably, the party ends abruptly with the sudden heart attack and death of Henry Haddon. That certainly puts an end to the party, but it is just the start of events kindled during the hot days of August.
The remaining four parts recount events of a ten-year period from 1936 to 1945. The characters of the house party are transformed by their experiences, but parallel to the individual stories is World War II with all its drama and tragedy, changing individual lives as it changes the society surrounding them as the years go by.
To go too far with description starts to become a spoiler. Suffice to say the story is intriguing and multifaceted, as we view these characters playing out the drama with its lifelike mixture of romance, heartache, tragedy, heroism, accomplishment and growth. The recounting is rich in atmosphere and detail, making for an absorbing reading experience.