Set in Stone by Linda Newberry

A pastiche of a Victorian sensation novel, written for younger reader, and wrapped in a lovely cover was such an enticing proposition. I raced through the opening chapter, part of a framing story, set in an art gallery some years after the events at the heart of the book, eager to reach the story proper.

I was drawn into that story by gorgeous writing, and I saw echoes of wonderful writers of the gothic, the sensational, the romantic. Wilkie Collins, the Bronte sisters, Mrs Radcliffe ….

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In 1898, aspiring young artist Samuel Godwin is hired by a Mr Farrow as tutor for his daughters, Juliana and Marianne, at their country house home, Fourwinds.

He found the two sisters to be very different: Marianne was a passionate free spirit while Juliana was quiet, demure, and clearing clinging to secrets that troubled her. And he found that Juliana had reasons to be unhappy. The girls’ mother had died in a tragic accident, their father was cold and remote, and their beloved governess had been taken away from them. But he believed that there was something else.

Maybe that something was the young sculptor who Mr Farrow had commissioned to create statues of the four winds, one for each side of his house. There were just thee glorious statues, somehow both pagan and classical, because the sculptor had been sent away before his work was complete.

Or maybe there was an even darker secret at Fourwinds.

The story is told, in alternate chapters, but Samuel and by Charlotte, who has been hired as governess/companion to the two sisters. She is attentive to her charges, she is clearly fond of them, but she will say nothing at all of her family or her history.

The storytelling is effective and evocative, the plotting is intricate and clever, and the suspense is lovely.

But that falls away as the story advances. I saw where the story was going, and it became a little too predictable.

Of course I could say that this story is written for younger readers, and that I worked things out because I have read a great many gothic romances over the years. But that brings me to another concern. The dark secret concerns incest. It isn’t explicit, and it happens ‘off stage’ before this story begins. But it is clear what happened, and of course the consequences can be seen.

It doesn’t sit well on a book written for young adults; there were other paths that the author could have – I think should have – taken.

I loved the art, and the artists fascination with and hunt for the sculptor. But when he is found suspense is lost, the story loses its impetus, there was a very obvious and unlikely contrivance, and it takes far too long to play out to its conclusion.

There are some really lovely and clever touches, there are moments of high drama, but it wasn’t quite enough.

An overlong – and improbable, maybe even fantastical – conclusion to the framing story was the final straw.

It was such a pity, because Linda Newbery writes very well, and there were any good things on this book.

If only it had been a little leaner, a little less obviously written for young readers, it could have been so special.

As it stands I’m sorry to say that it was a disappointment, and I think I must be much more selective when I pick up literary pastiches in the future.

3 responses

  1. Thank you for the heads up, I also would have been attracted by the synopsis and cover. The initial description reminds me of Joan Aiken, whose pastiches also fail to come together satisfactorily sometimes…but when they do, they’re brilliant.

  2. If I say that you’re good at writing a negative review that sounds awful – but I mean that you have a good way of describing what’s wrong while still picking out the good points and explaining yourself. Not a negative review: an even-handed review of something that didn’t quite work. I love Joan Aiken and thought of her, too – but one to not pick up if I see its tantalising cover around!

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