Love feels differently at different times of your life. Love for a spouse may be different than love for a teacher that has shown you how valuable you are. Love for a parent can be mixed with fear or misunderstanding. But regardless of how love comes into our lives, it is a rare person that cannot feel love. Even rarer is a person that feels love, but the love is mixed with emotions that make it impossible to melt into the love. When a story about love is so tinged with sadness that it makes you question your own lives and loves, it is a valuable tool as well as an escape.
“The Very Thought of You
” by Rosie Alison is such a book. This is the author’s first novel and it glimmers with such incredible emotion, such pathos, such tragedy, and such un-abiding love that I found myself sobbing through the last quarter of the novel. This is a book with not one, but a plethora of loves gone awry in the backdrop of WWII England. Like you, I thought that I had read plenty on this topic and didn’t really have high hopes for loving this book as much as I did. War, Blitz, London, evacuees…. It’s been done and done again. But it has never been done quite as gloriously as Ms Alison’s tale of young Anna Sands, a bright, talented and smart young girl evacuated to the very north of England to spend her war years in a stately manor called Ashton Park. In the summer of 1939, Anna’s mother decides to send Anna away from London as an evacuee. Along with many other children from London, Anna bids her mother goodbye at St Pancras station, leaving her mother alone in London. Meanwhile, Anna’s father is in North Africa during the war, fighting against the Nazi’s.
Anna arrives in York and is bussed with a few children she knew from her school in London, and many more children she did not, to a huge manor house owned by the very wealthy Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton. Thomas had survived a bout of polio that kept him confined to a wheel chair, and Elizabeth was less than dutiful in helping him to assuage his guilt that he could not father a child with her. The couple decided to open their home to 86 evacuee children, and to school them for the entirety of the war. They also took on teachers, and Thomas, a classical scholar himself, taught Latin, and later poetry alongside Ruth Weir, the literature teacher. The Ashton marriage is not a happy one, sullied by infertility that was always assumed to be the fault of Thomas’s illness, but in truth was Elizabeth’s problem, which she figured out from her affairs with men outside of her marriage.
As time went on, Elizabeth took to private drinking at night, and was bitter and mean during the day. She also fell in love with a Polish artist that had escaped Poland with the help of Thomas’s friend Col. Norton, and came to live in Ashton Park, where he was employed as the art teacher. It was their affair that led Elizabeth to realize that she would never have a full womb, something she absolutely could not reconcile, even amongst a gaggle of happy children running through her home.
Anna, a sensitive and astute young girl, twice finds herself witnessing the unraveling of the Ashton’s marriage. Once night through an open bedroom door she saw a drunken, naked Elizabeth screaming obscenities at her disabled husband, and then she witnessed the love of Thomas and the literature teacher in an abandoned maids bedroom. When Anna’s mother is killed during the blitz, Anna turns to Thomas for comfort and unwittingly falls in love with him, easy due to the lack of love she’s felt since her evacuation. However, that filial love grew asunder inside her and twists into something that affects her entire adult life. As Thomas’s love affair with Ruth grows ever deeper, Thomas asks Elizabeth to end their loveless marriage so they can both be free. Elizabeth guesses that Ruth is pregnant with Thomas’s child, something that would never happen to her, and she becomes enraged, seeking revenge that ends both her life, and the lives of Ruth and the unborn child.
When she was 12, Anna’s father comes to collect her and take her back to London as the war ends. She goes sadly, realizing that her years in Ashton Park were her childhood, and it was happy and filled with the love of learning, her teachers, and especially Thomas, her mentor and secret friend.
Although Anna was home, and went on to Oxford to complete her education, then finding a job as an editor at a small publishing house, her marriage felt incomplete and wrong. She had two children that she loved, but was living a life almost parallel to Elizabeth Ashton so many years ago. For Anna to understand what was happening to her, she needed to go back in time to confront the past. In order to heal herself and her relationships, she needed to learn about her love, and the love that has confounded her all these years.
This isn’t an easy book to read. The beautifully written and researched story is profoundly tragic and the happy ending you wish for just isn’t there. But there is a clear and satisfying conclusion that will leave you almost stunned, trying to catch your breath.
It is rare that I love a novel so much that I believe every single page is perfection. The old editor in me tends to find places where I would have cut a paragraph or even a scene. Not so with this book. It is golden, just as it is. A first novel this good needs to be spread far and wide. It is indeed one of those books you want to remember the rest of your life. It is that good.
Labels: books, reviews