December 02, 2014


Billed as "Downton Abbey meets The Princess Diaries," I expected a critique of manners and class striations somehow blended with the awkward, frizzy charm of a Mia Thermopolis knock-off. Disappointingly, that's... not exactly what I got. Despite its elegant cover and interesting blurb of "if Hitchcock had directed Downton Abbey," this novel includes a lot of young adult clichés which, while appealing to some, for me signal the "unholy trinity" - death, insta-love triangle, and drama. A whiplash quick plot-twist pulls the whole awkward bundle together into a messy conclusion. The jacket flap reveals that this novel is meant to be a twist on the classic Daphne du Monier's REBECCA... which I actually don't see at all, but just to put that out there. Filled with prose by turns beautiful and descriptive to breathless and heaving, the shocking conclusion to this novel which will leave you blinking... possibly in bewilderment. The end leaves some narrative strings danging, and is out-of-left-field and bemusing.

Summary: Knowing that her parents are minor peers of British royalty, Imogene, by age ten, just sees it as kind of a game - the Stanhopes bow a little lower to her grandfather and uncle than they do to her. Her cousin Lucia is a Lady, and Imogene is just... Imogene. But, none of it matters to a ten-year-old American girl. She's at her father's home in England for the summer, and what she wants to do is ride horses, play with Sebastian Stanhope, her buddy, tell secrets with Lucia, and otherwise just... be a kid. Imogene is uneasy that it looks like twelve-year-old Lucia and Sebastian are dating... and for her, there are some odd incidents involving fire and flowers, which Imogene ignores because she just wants to spend her summers unencumbered by thought. The plot accommodates this, allowing Imogene to go on not thinking - just pretending all is well. Which, honestly, shouldn't have been a surprise when it doesn't work long term.

Imogene's life is irrevocably changed when her parents and Lucia's parents apparently spontaneously combust - in the middle of the night - outside in the family's huge maze. Imogene had just seen her father in there that afternoon, and his cryptic remarks about there being something in there are the first example of heavy foreshadowing - something's in the maze. Something that eventually kills everyone - but what is it?? Lucia tries to get her cousin Imogene to stay in England with her, but her parents have a codicil in their will that returns Imogene to the United States and to the home of neighbors, who keep her as their own... and they keep her so well that they don't tell her that England has been calling... calling... calling for years. By the time she's seventeen, Imogene has all but forgotten the rest of her family, in a quest for normalcy which seems to excise anything unpleasant or past-related from her mind. I found it difficult to believe that she would nearly forget that she had blood-relatives simply because her parents died but she seems to let it all fade... until a phone call connects her with a man who has come to New York to let her know that she is the last of her family, and now the Duchess... her American family has been keeping this from her, for their own Adult Reasons, which seem to cause hardly a ripple for Imogene - I would have battled the rest of the book trying to let that be okay, but she is over years of duplicity fairly quickly. Of course, there is a cryptic and easily dismissed anonymous letter which hints that all of the deaths which it took for Imogene to be in line for the duchy are somewhat suspicious, but Imogene neatly sidesteps this, and carries on. It must be noted that one thing the character is very good at is not worrying about details, and moving on.

As soon as she arrives in England, Imogene reconnects with Sebastian, the love of her life, who was destined for her from the age of...ten...when he started to date her cousin. There's that insta-love I mentioned, and I was disappointed, because that could have been handled much better and differently. Despite Sebastian's dating her cousin for the seven years prior to her death and the whole "I never seemed to be into you except as a friend" stuff, Sebastian's ready to vow eternal love with Imogene. That for me would have been "red flag: freaky alert!" but Imogene take it as her due. Now, all they need to do is wobbly through any number of affairs of state without wearing flip-flops and chawing down on a wad of gum, figure out what is causing all the drama and random gusts of wind inside the estate, find out what's up with the grim housekeeper, what's up with Imogene, fire, and flowers and why no one demolished the maze if people died in there and there's allegedly "something" in there???

Peaks: This book is, at least in the beginning, beautifully written, with many lovely turns of phrase. The author's attention to detail in the manor house and grounds speaks to a great love for architecture and gardens, and an eye for what will interest readers with a bent to the romantic English country house or Merchant/Ivory type film.

Valleys: The plot was a disappointment for me, as I found it muddled and confusing. There were a few elements which seemed as if they'd initially set out to be about one thing, and then the author changed her mind about their significance midway. {SPOILER} Imogene has a power... which has nothing to do with anything, doesn't reveal much of anything, nor does it solve much of anything. The Maze, which features so prominently on the cover, and in the death of her parents, aunt and uncle, does not seem to be significant of anything. If one were to take out both the maze and the powers... it wouldn't really affect the novel, which makes their ominous and repeated references hollow. It was very confusing that the dramatic and high-profile, game-changing deaths of so many adults ALL AT ONCE were never... explained, explored, or solved, not really. I mean, "the spirit got mad" seems too little. The why and the how of the way they died is unnecessarily opaque, as if the author deliberately is trying to keep details of the plot from the reader... but who, then, are the details for? Additionally, there is the usual "All British People Are White" comfort-zone trope, and various types of diversity are entirely absent from this novel, though the cook is comfortably within cliché and described as stout. I found the emotional relationships less than satisfying, as I never felt that a forever-type of relationship could be founded on an attraction which started at age ten, though I recognize that others who are quite sure of themselves romantically may beg to differ.

Conclusion: This novel didn't work for me, and I felt at times like I could make no headway in getting to know neither the characters nor their motivation. Their actions lacked urgency for me; in short, I didn't care what their issues were - about the "powers" of State or the British aristocracy, etc. etc. - all things which in The Princess Diaries we're allowed to engage with and care for. The romance didn't feel genuine at all, as it was just one of those Foregone Conclusions we as readers are meant to get swept along with, and the power... I'm still not sure what it was for, or why it existed. However, for those readers who enjoy an atmospheric novel with plenty of Gothic architecture and a lot of designer-name dressing up, as well as those who enjoy explanations of British pride in their class distinctions, those readers will find this a memorable wish-fulfillment type of novel which will feed their dreams of princessdom and into which they can disappear for awhile.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After December 9th, 2014, you can find SUSPICION by Alexandra Monir at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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