I have to admit that I tend to approach a new-to-me female author with a lot of trepidation. Often what sounds so intriguing on the jacket flap turns out to be just another boilerplate family saga --- the predictable Cinderella story --- complete with the beautiful, overly talented heroine; the hunky male heir; and the ostentatious mansion. I understand there's a huge market for that kind of sappy, romanticized fiction, but not on my shelves. I want gritty characters grappling with weightier issues than which necklace to wear with their tasteful, understated outfit.
This week I was lucky enough to be handed one of those rare authors who creates those rich characterizations and earthy scenarios I crave --- Rosamunde Pilcher. Her newest novel, WINTER SOLSTICE, is a deeply moving tale of ordinary people searching for anchors in their stormy lives. It embodies the most fundamental of issues: old age, loss of loved ones, parents and children, and emotional isolation. Yet, unlike many of her contemporaries, Pilcher narrates her story with an emotional warmth and positive spirit that doesn't leave you fumbling for tissues and antidepressants.
While Pilcher's cast of characters is large, and all are eventually explored in depth, the two featured most prominently are Elfrida Phipps and Oscar Blundell. Elfrida, an aging ex-actress living on a small pension, moves from London to the country, where she has every intention of enjoying the twilight of her life in the convivial environment of a small English village. She becomes acquainted with the prominent Blundell family, and as she's introduced into their social circle she finds herself drawn to Oscar Blundell, a gentle soul who's life centers on his daughter and his organ music. A tragic accident takes the lives of both his wife and daughter, leaving Oscar floundering emotionally and financially, with only Elfrida's friendship to provide him the strength to endure. More than a love story, Pilcher pulls us into the core of their relationship, examining the very essence of human need --- companionship.
Elfrida's cousin, Jeffrey, supplies the introduction to another troupe of players that form a dysfunctional family headed by his ex-wife Dodie. Dodie is a self-centered social climber with two daughters: Nicole, who emulates her mother's abrasive personality; and Carrie, charming and intelligent, who fled the nest to seek a happier life. When Carrie finally returns to London, she finds Nicole's 14-year-old daughter Lucy suffering from the unbearable prospect of a Christmas vacation to Florida with her mother's latest beau. Out of concern for Lucy's welfare, Carrie arranges a Christmas visit to Elfrida and Oscar's refuge in Scotland; an adventure that becomes life-altering for all concerned. Within this family dynamic, Pilcher reveals all the elements that impact the lives of so many children: bitter divorces; distant, uninvolved parents; and the importance of a caring, supportive family structure.
Beyond the masterful characterizations and thought-provoking narrative, Pilcher's prose is as delicate as a watercolor with vivid colors and graceful symmetry. There are moments when she paints the bleakest image of a Scottish winter upon the page:
"In midwinter, it was an alien land. Monotone beneath a sky scoured white by the wind. The hills, sweeping down to the coast, were already topped by an icing of snow and the snow merged with the clouds, so that the summits of the hills were lost to view, veiled, blurred, as though already absorbed by the doleful heavens."
Yet, turn the page and the grayness is contrasted by the beauty of the Scottish countryside:
"And she would cross an empty moor, and the road would slip down into a tiny valley thick with rhododendrons, where enviable gardens were still verdant with hydrangeas and the dangling ballerina blossoms of fuchsia."
Pilcher's eloquence serves to create a haunting, sentimental vista that beckons to readers to pack their belongings and return to the simpler life. Whether you've been an ardent fan of Rosamunde Pilcher, or are a new acquaintance like this reader, WINTER SOLSTICE is a literary delight that will speak to both your conscience and your heart.
Reviewed by Ann L. Bruns (BkPageWC@aol.com) on May 1, 2001