England, 31st August 1939: The world is on the brink of war. As Hitler prepares to invade Poland, thousands of children are evacuated from London to escape the impending Blitz. Torn from her mother, eight-year-old Anna Sands is relocated with other children to a large Yorkshire estate which has been opened up to evacuees by Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, an enigmatic, childless couple. Soon Anna gets drawn into their unraveling relationship, seeing things that are not meant for her eyes and finding herself part-witness and part-accomplice to a love affair with unforeseen consequences. A story of longing, loss, and complicated loyalties, combining a sweeping narrative with subtle psychological observation, The Very Thought of You is not just a love story but a story about love.Sometimes you hear about a book and you think to yourself "I know that I am going to love this book" and then when you come to write the review it gives you great satisfaction to be able to say that you were right. And then there are the other books - those ones that sound like exactly the kind of book you are going to love...and you just don't.
The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison is unfortunately one of the latter types for me. In theory this is a perfect book for me. I love reading stories set against the background of war, particularly World War II, and whilst I have read about a young person going to stay with a family as an evacuee earlier this year, this is the first time I have read that experience through the eyes of an evacuee who goes to a stately home turned school. The historical setting and the location sound fascinating.
The story starts with 8 year old Anna Sands. She is about to be evacuated to the countryside like thousands of other children were just after the outbreak of World War II but before the bombs actually started to fall on the major cities. After sharing a magical day out with her mother in preparation for their separation, Anna is looking forward to going to the seaside but instead ends up at a stately home in Yorkshire with lots of other children, where the house has been hastily converted into a school. Anna is somewhat remote from the other children emotionally, but feels a connection to Thomas Ashton almost immediately. Thomas worked for the diplomatic corps until he was left wheelchair bound after a bout of polio and is now running the school and doubling up as a teacher for some of the time.
Thomas and Elizabeth are desperate for children, and when I say desperate, I mean desperate, particularly in Elizabeth's case. There is some hope that by opening their home up to become a school they will in some way compensate for their barrenness but it is at best a band aid solution. As a character, Elizabeth suffers from being very two dimensional - the bitter woman who descends to a very dark place. She is not the only two dimensional character who fills the pages by any stretch of the imagination, but she certainly is the most obvious example of this.
Even the secondary characters seem to be caricatures of real people. For example, whilst Anna is pining away in the school in Yorkshire, her mother Roberta is living the high life in London barely giving her young child a thought.
Of the things that bothered me about this book, one of the bigger issues include the fact that the author didn't seem to know what the focus of the novel was. Was it meant to be a story about the evacuee experience of a young girl? Was it meant to be a dissection of a marriage from the point where Elizabeth decided that Thomas was the man for her and made it happen, through his illness and subsequent disability, and then their inability to have children? Was it meant to be the story of the descent of the physical house from family home to empty National Trust property? All of the above? Having finished the book, I can't say that I am sure.
That's not to say that Alison can't turn a phrase, because she most certainly can, and there were sections where I stopped and reread passages because the observations were so strong. For example, from page 82:
It was no comfort to her that William had been heroic, because the soaring death toll had already devalued the worth of any one sacrifice
and then again from page 105
Sometimes, across the dining room she would glimpse Thomas talking to someone, and her heart would turn over at the sight of his smile. And a memory would come back to her of the longing she had known for him before their marriage. But she knew that now it was only a memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself.
The couple of lines of the publisher's blurb say that "The Very Thought of You is not just a love story but is a story about love", but I would argue that it is neither of those things, or at least it is not the kind of love that I want to read about or live. Why would anyone want to love if it left everyone unfulfilled for the rest of their days? I guess this kind of ties in with the idea that all the characters in "literature" need to be miserable in order to be worth reading about. I don't get why that needs to be the case, but it is certainly not something that has gone unnoticed when it comes to discussion about the various literature prizes over the years.
Cross posted at Historical Tapestry