This is the opposite of an escape to the country book; more a Wife in the North-type ‘I’m stuck here because my husband wants me to be’ novel. It’s the story of two women who live in the same Cumbrian rectory at different times. Alice is The Vicar’s Wife, who lives there in the 1930s and ‘40s. After a sheltered life in Cambridge with her academic father, she falls in love with one of his former students, moves to the cold, inconvenient house and finds that, at nineteen, she’s seen not as her adored David’s wife, but as ‘the vicar’s wife’. She’s lonely and sometimes unhappy but makes the best of things.
Jane, the present day occupant, couldn’t be more different. She’s a New Yorker, juggling work and three children, dependent on childcare, takeaway meals and all that the city offers. Her English husband decides they could have a better life in England and moves the family back near his childhood home. ‘It all sounded very charming, sort of like living in a period drama. Next she’d be churning butter. The reality, however, was that the house was a mess of peeling paint, warped floorboards, and dodgy electrics. It was freezing even in summer.’ Like Alice, Jane is cold and lonely in the big house but her attitude couldn’t be more different. She’s full of resentment, desperately homesick, can’t understand her children and starts to fantasise about dividing her life between New York and Goswell: ‘I need this. This is reasonable, because I need it.’
As soon as I saw the author’s thanks to her editor ‘at The People’s Friend’, I knew the morals in this book would be sound and the ending happy. Jane discovers a fragment of a shopping list in the pantry. It was written by Alice and Jane becomes obsessed with finding out more about her predecessor, wondering how she lived and coped. The dual narrative keeps the story going, the detective element adds interest, and Alice is revealed as a quiet heroine. Jane can be very irritating. Nevertheless this is an engaging story about two women, their marriages and life in an isolated country district.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. Published 18th October by Lion Fiction.