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Saturday 10 December 2016

Great settings are not enough when romance is at stake

Frost in the Sun By Claire Lorrimer Hodder & Stoughton (2015) €13.50 HHIII

Readers nostalgic for big, sweeping epic novels set in the past will find much to love here - the reissue of Lorimer's oeuvre is exactly that: a romantic historical novel, full of setbacks, intrigue and unrequited love.

Two girls, who become best friends in boarding school at the turn of the 20th century, are linked throughout their lives - one an incredibly spoiled brat from the Spanish aristocracy, and the other an utterly wet doormat who is from the English middle class.

Casilda Montero is the former: she is the apple of her father's eye and is indulged by him in every way. Her English mother takes the opposite view of Cassy's behaviour and has her shipped off to a convent school in England. Here, she befriends the shy and retiring Joscelin Howard, who will carry her humble upbringing like a shield before her for the rest of her life.

The two bond out of necessity, as both are outcasts and both are in love with the same fellow: Cassy's first cousin, Alan.

The narrative covers the years from 1909 to 1939, including the Spanish Civil War. Lovers of history will find that most of the big events, like the crash of the stock market in America, are covered by two or three sentences - this may be unsatisfying for such readers. But those who don't really care for an exegesis of world events in a romance novel will be delighted.

Lorrimer does a brilliant job of showing the effects that these events have on her characters, but her bailiwick is the romantic lives of the girls and their personalities. They are absolute opposites and this is demonstrated relentlessly. Neither of them change much, if at all. If anything, they proceed to get worse as the narrative goes on, with heartbreaking, adulterous Cassy redeeming herself slightly with her work with a proto-Resistance on the continent.

Joscelin redeems herself not at all as she devotes herself to a shell shocked Alan for the rest of her days.

When presented with two such glaringly contradictory protagonists, the reader is expected to come on the side of one or the other, thereby creating a crowd-pleasing read. I was on the side of neither, as both were annoying in their own very special ways.

Lorrimer's prose was lovely, though, and calls to mind time and place well.

The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club

By Marlena de Blasi Hutchinson (2015) €25.50 HHHII

Following the principle that you should never go food shopping on an empty stomach, don't read this, unless you are prepared to nibble your way through the narrative. De Blasi's tale is embedded with mouth watering meals.

It's billed as a memoir - American expat food journo lives in Italy, befriends the locals, is invited into their gustatory circle - but reads like a florid love story.

That food is the object of desire makes sense, given the author's area of expertise and country of residence. That she decides to take over cooking for the Thursday Night Supper Club is the grit in the story's oyster and moves it forward.

Great for foodie Italophiles.

Isabella: Braveheart of France

By Colin Falconer Lake Union (2015) €10.50 HHIII

Isabella, the 12-year-old French princess, married the charismatic, but not entirely heterosexual, Edward II of England. Very little description accompanies Isabella's attempt to sway the heart of the king, who only reluctantly began to see her as a force of nature in her own right.

Falconer is sympathetic to her plight, but the tone is almost utterly without emotion and there is a repetitiveness to Isabella's handling of her husband - she stomps up to him, demands to be heard, he laughs at her spunkiness, and she wanders off thinking she's gained some ground... when she hasn't.

It's nice to see her portrayed sympathetically, but otherwise, there's not much richness here.

Under a Cornish Sky

By Liz Fenwick Orion (2015) €19.50 HIIII

Despite its lovely setting and its many dramatic elements, this is unsatisfying. A young woman leaves her revolting boyfriend after having lost the opportunity for a job because her revolting colleague took the credit for her work; a 60-something married woman is carrying on behind her husband's back with a much younger man, and devotes herself entirely to her beloved ancestral home.

When the two find they are linked by misfortune, and the beloved ancestral home is at stake, naturally they must come together to save the day.

Except they don't: the actual saving-of-the-day is treated as the endgame, where, in fact, a developing relationship between the two would have appeared to have been the point of the story.

Repetitive actions and unconvincingly revealed secrets make this slow going indeed.

The Shepardess

of Siena

By Linda Lafferty Lake Union (2015) €10.50 HHIII

Virginia Tacci is an orphan peasant, living with a nasty aunt and an indulgent uncle, who dreams of becoming the first female to win the Palio. So: hard done by central character, check; gender politics, check; it's the Renaissance, so Medicis, check.

Many elements for an interesting read are here. The characters, however, show no depth and are reduced to one or two elements of their personality, such as 'spirited orphan' or 'spoiled Medici, and the time period - a lush and splendid era - barely makes an impression on the text.

Despite the excitement of Virginia's apprenticeship and eventual mastery of the horses, this plods along to a standstill.

A shame, as some of the writing was nicely done.

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