In Penny Vincenzi's most recent book for Doubleday, she took a different approach from what her readers expect. THE BEST OF TIMES focused on the altered lives of a disparate group of people following a major traffic accident. In her new novel, MORE THAN YOU KNOW, she returns to more familiar territory: the lives and loves of a well-to-do family, as well as their friends and colleagues.
"[C]onsider [the book] as a portrait of a specific time in Britain, when class barriers were becoming far more fluid but gender roles remained relatively rigid. Vincenzi has a broad canvas at her disposal, and she uses it to explore this idea through a panorama of characters and situations, all of whom have their own compelling individual stories as well."
The novel centers on the Fullerton-Clarks, one of many formerly wealthy families who have begun to realize that their assets are no longer enough to keep up Summercourt, the beautiful but dilapidated country manor that has been in their family for many generations. Nor are they able to sell, even if they wanted to, thanks to antiquated rules governing property and inheritance. Their only hope is for their lovely daughter Eliza to marry well, to marry a man who can not only make Eliza happy but also save the family property.
Does this sound like the premise of a certain British drama series? Perhaps, but unlike “Downton Abbey,” Vincenzi's novel is set in a very different decade. This is the 1960s, the era of Twiggy and the Beatles, of the Kennedys and Princess Grace. And even if Eliza's parents might want her to marry a wealthy man, she has her own ideas, most of which center on developing her rather ambitious career in the fashion industry. Vincenzi, whose novels are rarely short on glamour, clearly enjoys describing the fashion and culture of the era through Eliza's oh-so-chic eyes.
Eliza's meteoric professional rise comes to an abrupt end, however, when she --- almost in spite of herself --- falls head over heels in love with precisely the wrong man. Not only is Matt Shaw not conventionally wealthy or upper class --- he's a friend of Eliza's brother from the service, a working-class boy who's making a name for himself in London's booming real estate market --- but he also has very traditional ideas about gender roles within marriage. And when Eliza becomes pregnant, Matt insists that she give up the job she loves.
Their tempestuous relationship is but one facet of this multi-layered novel. Eliza's brother, Matt's sister, and both of their professional colleagues also earn their own subplots, which are interwoven in brief, plot-advancing vignettes that make it incredibly hard to stop reading --- there's almost always time for just one more scene.
Following Eliza and Matt's relationship over the course of many years is interesting, but hardly surprising --- the book opens with a major spoiler, after all. What's more compelling about reading MORE THAN YOU KNOW is to consider it as a portrait of a specific time in Britain, when class barriers were becoming far more fluid but gender roles remained relatively rigid. Vincenzi has a broad canvas at her disposal, and she uses it to explore this idea through a panorama of characters and situations, all of whom have their own compelling individual stories as well. Calling the novel a cultural critique might be stretching things a little; it's more of a cultural portrait, painted in brilliant pop-culture colors.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 6, 2012