The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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July 6, 2012


I greatly enjoyed Juliet Nicolson's book The Great Silence {about the two years following World War I} when I read it two summers ago, and since I'm  a little bit of a monarchy nut {starting with Queen Victoria} I put her new novel Abdication on reserve as soon as I heard about it.  It's not a novel specifically about Wallis and Edward, although they are characters in it; it tells the intersecting stories of three people who lives are touched by what is happening in England in 1936..

When the book opens, May Thomas, a young 'chauffeuse,' is driving a passenger to a country house called Fort Belvedere. May grew up in Barbados, and learned to drive on her family's sugar plantation.  She has recently returned to England, along with her brother Sam, to seek their fortunes there. Sam hopes to join the Royal Navy, and May has found a job as a driver and secretary to Sir Philip Blunt, an MP. , They are welcomed by their cousin Nat, who has married into a Jewish family living in London's East End. As it turns out, May and her passenger, overweight, insecure, middle-aged Evangeline Nettlefold, traveled on the same ship. But Evangeline is from Baltimore,  and has come to England to visit her godmother, Lady Joan (Sir Philip's wife) and to reconnect  with her childhood friend, Wallis Warfield, now Wallis Simpson.

When May returns to the Blunt home, Sir Philip asks her never to tell anyone that  Mrs. Simpson was keeping company with the new King, As the story moves forward, Sir Philip becomes enmeshed in the hushed conversations and deliberations about this troubling relationship, the East End is threatened by Blackshirt marches and anti-semitism, May finds herself becoming attracted to Julian Richardson, an Oxford student and friend of the Blunts, and Evangeline wavers in her feelings for Wallis.

Convincing atmosphere, and some wonderful lines.  One of my favorites was this one:

Whirling away from the king's touch, Mrs. Simpson turned her back on them and May could see her wide jawbone jutting out from either side of her head like the back view of a cobra.

{Delicious, if a little unfair.}  Unfortunately, in this first novel, I think Juliet Nicolson is still writing more like a historian than as a novelist, and sometimes the period detail seems a little more like name- and fact-dropping.  This is another book that I hoped would be better than it was, but I like immersing myself in this period and I thought Abdication was a good (if not great) way to spend time there.


Teresa said...

I started this book and ended up not finishing it. I agree about the fact-dropping. And I didn't find either of her main characters convincing. Her nonfiction is better.

JoAnn said...

Another book with an enticing cover, but I think I'll stick to her nonfiction.

Nan said...

I think I would like it better if it were nonfiction. I so admire her work, and this story is such a rich one, there doesn't seem a need to fictionalize it.

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