Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Serious critics don’t usually bother romance writing. It leaves us alone too. A lavishly illustrated cover and an intriguing blurb introducing a story about a tin of chocolates were not enough to set my spirit soaring as I flipped through Fiona McIntosh’s book. But then I discovered I was reading longer passages and paying attention to the dialogue, and flipping back to page one to begin again. This book is not amateurish in the slightest. It is a well written documentary of social mores around the time of the First World War melded with the complications of an exciting love story that just could not be. It is a beautifully presented book with a lush, informative, but restrained cover. Like the image in the story, the outside of the chocolate is impressive but the centre is so much more.
The story opens with an intelligent young woman who wants to learn the secrets of the chocolate trade but is stopped from doing so by her position in society. Alexandra Frobisher has to finagle her way into the Rowntree’s factory to achieve her purpose without upsetting the delicate sensitivities of the people around her, particularly of her mother. She meets Matthew Britten-Jones, is intrigued by him, and, liking the benefits he describes when he suggests she marry him, does so. She sees in the arrangement the freedom to pursue a career. (That she is no longer single should have seen her unemployable but she manages to get around that). The marriage releases some of the pressure to become a ‘milch cow’ like others of her kind. With so many dead in the war it was imperative that young women should marry and have children.
The other half of this tale develops out of Captain Harry Blakeney’s find at the end of the war of the body of a soldier who had received from the Red Cross a chocolate tin that happened to contain a love note from a girl called Kitty. Blakeney, (calling himself Harry Blake for reasons that become clear later), searches Yorkshire for the dead soldier’s mother, as he feels she should know where her son had fallen and should receive his last effects. He is also on the lookout for Kitty.
Every reader by now has realised that this is a story about Harry, Alex, and Matthew and the love triangle so formed. The expectation is that the tin of chocolates will be some sort of unifying image. There are no prizes for guessing that Alex is the mysterious Kitty as the reader is present when she slips the note into the tin. The love between Alex and Harry flourishes but is truncated by the fact that Alex is married to Matthew.
The working-out of a solution to the woes of the lovers will keep the reader immersed in the story. There is nothing new about the situation but the writing is exciting and the story, unfolding like the slow, but certain, unpeeling of the wrapping around a Rowntrees’ chocolate, finally reveals its innermost wonders. The tightness of the story-telling goes unnoticed, however. It is only when the tale is told and readers sit back to reflect that they observe the subtleties of the script. Nobody loses interest for, when a particular point in the tale has been thoroughly examined, a new development takes place, and a new interest is re-awakened.
Even so, the plot of the novel is not the major strength of this book. That lies elsewhere and it is portrayed with the greatest subtlety. Minerva Frobisher, Alex’s mother, encapsulates what this book does so well, when she exclaims, “We’ve never raised you in doubt of your duty, surely? Daughters from families such as ours have their part to play in the family’s future. It’s time to deliver on all your privileges and do your bit” (8). Earlier on the same page her father reminds her that “association with the factory floor will not do – not for a Frobisher girl.”
The twin concepts of social stratification and devotion to duty permeate the book, live vigorously within its characters, and explain the played out details of the characters’ lives. Stiff adherence to a narrow way of life is the fabric, without which life has no meaning. When a character exceeds the moral bounds, there is always a harsh consequence, redeemable only with pain and longing. Matthew Britten-Jones attempts to slide ‘beneath the radar’, as a later generation would say, and pays the price. Harry and Alex have a forbidden affair, attempt to part and live as their society requires, but shoulder the penalty society imposes. Harry’s unspoken promise to marry elsewhere, though unspoken, has given to him a duty he cannot escape. Because he is an honourable man, he keeps his promise.
The end is the weakest part of the whole package. We’re not meant to think of Dickens’ Little Nell, but we do. We’re not supposed to draw comparisons with Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, but the choice is not ours. The twist in the plot at this point suggests that the author was aware of the comparisons a reader might make and supplies a diversion to offset this effect. It is not enough. McIntosh is a good writer but not such that her characters can play a Dickensian moment and make it theirs. That having been said, she does give Dickens an almighty scare!
A really fine book – one I am pleased to have on my shelves.
By Fiona McIntosh