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The Song of Hartgrove Hall


The Song of Hartgrove Hall

Popular television shows like “Downton Abbey” romanticize the glamorous life on a grand English estate, but they tend to gloss over the financial realities of maintaining such a home. The Crawley family may discuss occasionally the cost of maintaining their expansive abode, but they still have enough money to host lavish dinners and support a household staff of more than a dozen.

Not so for the Fox-Talbots, the family at the center of Natasha Solomons’ vividly realized fourth novel, THE SONG OF HARTGROVE HALL. For years, they lived in genteel poverty in an increasingly dilapidated home. The paintings by Gainsborough and Constable were all hocked years ago, and the antique furniture was replaced by cheap copies. Now, the three Fox-Talbot sons, along with The General --- their stern, emotionally withholding father --- have returned after World War II to find their beloved estate (which was requisitioned by the army during the war) in even more dreadful shape than when they left. With no money to pay for repairs, The General decides to dynamite the house and sell the surrounding land, but his children object, concocting a half-baked plan to save the place. 

Jack, the handsome eldest son, has plenty of optimism but little practical knowledge of farming, while middle brother George gets agricultural tips from TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES rather than THE FARMER’S ALMANAC. Harry, who narrates, feels both the push and pull of home. He wants to save the family seat but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. In secret, the youngest Fox-Talbot dreams of being a composer but for now must content himself with collecting folk songs, which seems to him the best way to preserve the memory of Hargrove Hall.

"...vividly realized... Solomons excels at capturing feelings of loss, grief and longing for the past."

“I have this notion of using the songs as the basis of some kind of pastoral symphony about the loss of home and of an England vanished in the war,” Harry tells Edie Rose, his brother’s fiancé, a celebrated wartime singer and the only person who understands his passion for music (a passion the author clearly shares). Of course, he falls for the alluring, beautiful chanteuse, and the attraction seems mutual, but she marries Jack anyway. A humiliated Harry flees, and distance and heartbreak allow him to finally start composing in earnest. 

Solomons alternates chapters set in the 1940s and 1950s with those set in the present day, yanking the reader out of the post-war period and into a more mundane present. It’s clear from the outset that Hartgrove Hall won’t be blown up like a neighboring estate was in an evocative early scene, and also that Harry eventually succeeds in his musical endeavors, and that he even wins the affections of Edie. The main source of suspense is how everyone got from here to there, and what was won and sacrificed along the way. 

All we know at first is that 50-odd years after returning to Hartgrove Hall after the war, an elderly, isolated Harry is slowly giving up on life. He is deep in mourning for Edie and has lost his ability to compose. It's only when he discovers that his grandson Robin has a rare musical gift that Harry is able to come to terms with Edie's death and confront another unresolved issue from his youth. These chapters lack some of the charm of those set in the past; Harry is frequently cantankerous, while Robin is a brat, though the former’s pointed observations about modern life somewhat make up for both. Robin’s audition for a televised talent competition is both a painful and funny commentary on the dangerous allure of celebrity. 

An early reviewer of Harry’s work accuses him of “overcomplication.” The same might be said of this book, which at times feels stuffed with too many characters and hints of drama that are never explored. The reserved George has an intriguing, clandestine romance with one of Harry's friends, but it’s mentioned just once, then never referred to again. Harry’s long-suffering girlfriend, Sal, is dispensed with nary a tear (Harry is a talented composer, but not particularly kind). Even Edie is shadowy. We learn a bit about her impoverished childhood in London's East End, but she remains closed off even to her husband, who is hurt and baffled by her desire to be buried in a Jewish cemetery rather than at Hartgrove Hall. 

Yet Solomons excels at capturing feelings of loss, grief and longing for the past. Even as a young man, Harry is already looking to what came before, desperately trying to preserve the sounds of a vanishing England. Edie takes long walks on cold, snowy nights, trying to live out the tales her Bubbe used to tell of long Russian winters. Loss is ongoing and nostalgia is ever-present, but life continues apace, especially when there is music that can evoke a shared history, allowing things that have vanished to live again.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on January 8, 2016

The Song of Hartgrove Hall
by Natasha Solomons

  • Publication Date: December 29, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Plume
  • ISBN-10: 0147517591
  • ISBN-13: 9780147517593