It is one of those books in which everything – characters, emotions, settings, writing, period, storylines – is right. And everything works together beautifully to produce a book that is far more than the sum of those parts.
At heart though, The Novel in the Viola is the story of a life. The life of Elise, younger daughter of Anna and Julian Landau. Opera singer and novelist respectively. Elise worries that she is not as talented as her sister, Margot, but that casts just a very small shadow on a wonderful life. Because Elise is loved, and because she loves her family, she is happy and she is secure.
But the year is 1938. The Landaus live in Austria, in Vienna. And they are Jewish.
Anna and Julian realise that their family is at risk and take steps to flee. Margot and her husband secure American visas and they hope that they will be able to do the same. But they know that they will not be able to secure a visa for Elise, and so she writes an advertisement:
VIENNESE JEWESS, 19, seeks position as domestic servant. Speaks fluid English. I will cook your goose. Elise Landau, Vienna 4, Dorotheegassee, 30/5.
A position is secured and Elise is despatched to London. A temporary arrangement, to keep her safe until things change, until the family can be reunited.
Elise, her family, her world were alive for me, and I felt her sorrow as she was separated from them. I admired her character as she coped with the journey, the things she had to do in London. I empathised with her as she worried about making her money last, as she devoured the chocolate her sister tucked into her luggage, as she struggled to cope with the separation from her family and her home.
Or, to put it simply, I grew to love Elise.
She becomes a parlour maid at Tyneford House on the Dorset coast. During her life there she will experience both love and loss. She will make friends, and grow to love the house and the surrounding countryside. But she will also suffer slights and setbacks as she tries to find her place in the world, and reunite her family.
The slights come because Elise doesn’t quite fit. She plays the part of a parlour maid but she comes from the world of the family. The butler observes that, after Elise, Tyneford would never be the same again and he is right, for more reasons than he knows.
It would love to write about so many wonderful details, characters and events, but I mustn’t. This is a book that needs to unravel slowly, so that you can watch over Elise as her life progresses.
The settings, from Vienna to London to Dorset, are wonderfully painted, and the sense of period and the point in history too are never lost. The characters, and their relationships, are fully and beautifully drawn. I believed in them utterly.
That meant that I was completely involved as Tyneford House and its occupants faced both war, and the end of an era. Things would never be the same again.
I knew that. I had the benefit of hindsight, and that made the story so much more moving.
It was such a wonderful story, so beautifully written, and with such a range of emotions. I think I felt every emotion that a book can inspire before I reached the end.
That end came quickly. Maybe a little too quickly, though it might have been that I just didn’t want to leave Elise and her world. It was unexpected and yet completely right, and it was given extra poignancy by the very real events that it mirrored.
A few small things didn’t quite work.Maybe a few too many nice, understanding characters. One or two modern idioms slipped in. And the story of the actual novel in the actual viola didn’t quite work for me.
But they were small things, and I could happily let them pass by, because the many delights of this novel made them seem unimportant.
And because The Novel in the Viola really is a book that can touch your heart, if you only let it.
And, as I said, I loved it.