Wendy Wax’s fresh approach to an entertaining story line hooks us with the idea that other things could happen “while we were watching “Downton Abbey.”’ It is hard to imagine that other lives, besides the upstairs and downstairs people of the “grand estate against the backdrop of the English countryside,” would catch our attention. But they do. They are the residents of the Alexander, a “beautifully renovated Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival-styled apartment building” in downtown Atlanta. We keep track of the known, the Crawleys and their lives, while following new characters and experiences.
Edward Parker, the concierge of the Alexander, is a transplanted butler from London. His affection for the series, as well as his British uncle’s recommendation, encourages him to offer Sunday night entertainment at the Alexander: seasons one and two of “Downton Abbey.”
"Honesty in any relationship is vital, and Wax shows this truth in downtown Atlanta alongside the engrossing story of “Downton Abbey.”"
Three women will become friends and change each others’ lives during these showings. Brooke MacKenzie, a divorced mother of two, has been in a holding pattern since her husband traded her for a new Barbie. There are missteps, tears and longings for her old life, but she surprises herself by finding success in helping a recently widowed dad plan a very cool “princess wars” birthday party for his daughter. His admiration for her ability to create a guest list by the obvious routes (call the babysitter and the little girl across the street, get the class directory from school) is revealed when he looks at her “as if she’d invented the wheel or discovered fire.” We hope we know where this encounter is heading, and there is sweetness and believability in this relationship.
Claire Wilson’s daughter is a freshman at Northwestern, and Claire has given herself a year to write a third novel, a sequel to her Scottish romances set in the 1700s. She, too, longs for the energy and focus of the past when she was a single mom. This regret does not mix well with a crushing, consuming writer’s block.
Samantha Davis’s story circles back for 25 years of her marriage, and it reviews the uncertainty of her husband’s intentions, her mother-in-law’s continuing disapproval, and the errant younger brother and sister she raised. She presents a beautifully manicured and confident matron of old Atlanta money and prestige, but she is insecure and ineffective as she deals with the crises that appear like old habits: predictable but damaging.
To maneuver the three women and their stories under the “Downton Abbey” umbrella of acceptance and friendship, we need Edward. He is indeed a perfect master of ceremonies who supplies the “downstairs” contingent that serves authentic British fare: shandies (a potent lager and lemonade drink), snifters of brandy, and bite-sized Cornish pasties. He introduces each show and then allows the audience to absorb the dramatic and romantic moments; then he offers a discussion and “afters” of raspberry tarts and trifle. However, there are enough references to Peachtree Street, the ITP, and a climactic Thanksgiving dinner with oyster stuffing, warm cornbread and a “ham with a Coca-Cola glaze…we do love our Coke products” to keep the story firmly planted in Georgia.
Wendy Wax melds the British show with American viewers never more successfully than when Edward offers a website quiz meant to match the traits of “Downton Abbey” characters with those of the watchers. He confesses that he took the quiz first and assumed he would turn out to be “Carson, but I could hardly have been further off.” He was Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: “imperious, aristocratic head of your family who (almost) always gets her way.” It is probably a good guess that almost everyone who chooses to read this novel will have seen enough of “Downton Abbey” to appreciate each reference and appraisal of the characters --- and may even choose to disagree!
The bond of friendship and the responsibilities and rights within that bond are the heart of the novel. Samantha learns that accepting the flaws of new friends is less important than revealing her own insecurities to them. In the midst of her personal crises, she has to become accountable to the women she has befriended and helped. After one apology to Claire and Brooke, they want more…“because friends don’t blow each other off as soon as something goes wrong.” Samantha has to answer the door, pick up the phone, and admit them back into her friendship. “Friendship can’t be one-sided. You can’t only give. You have to accept comfort and support when it’s offered.” As Samantha is reminded, so will be readers of this novel.
Honesty in any relationship is vital, and Wax shows this truth in downtown Atlanta alongside the engrossing story of “Downton Abbey.”
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on April 5, 2013
While We Were Watching Downton Abbey