Monday, February 4, 2013

Park Lane by Frances Osborne

The blurb:
When eighteen-year-old Grace Campbell arrives in London in 1914, she’s unable to fulfill her family’s ambitions and find a position as an office secretary. Lying to her parents and her brother, Michael, she takes a job as a housemaid at Number 35, Park Lane, where she is quickly caught up in lives of its inhabitants—in particular, those of its privileged son, Edward, and daughter, Beatrice, who is recovering from a failed relationship that would have taken her away from an increasingly stifling life. Desperate to find a new purpose, Bea joins a group of radical suffragettes and strikes up an intriguing romance with an impassioned young lawyer. Unbeknownst to each of the young women, the choices they make amid the rapidly changing world of WWI will connect their chances at future happiness in dramatic and inevitable ways.

I've been fascinated with World War I and the years following it.  This fascination goes beyond my fondness for Downton Abbey, Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series and the Charles Todd series of  Detective Inspector Ian Rutledge, Bess Crawford mysteries.  So when given the opportunity to read another well regarded book set in the period, I grabbed at the chance.

Park Lane is largely told from two perspectives: that of  Bea Masters from "upstairs" whose family is known for its railroad money and Grace, a young girl working as a second housemaid in the Masters household.

We are first introduced to Grace and learn that she's entered service without informing her family.  Her own mother's family owned textile mills but the family fortune has long since dissipated and while Grace has trained to serve as a secretary, she has had no luck securing a position. It was after weeks of unemployment that she resorted to applying as a housemaid.  Her fellow servants regard her with some suspicion as they can tell she's no experience in service.  Grace keeps up a good front, hiding her position from her family, sending money home to help support her parents and younger siblings, and in her time off trying to improve her typing and secretarial skills.  As Grace settles into life at Park Lane, she finds herself slowly growing accustomed to the life and fighting a romantic entanglement until the War breaks.

When we meet Bea Masters, she is recovering from a bad love affair and is looking for purpose. She falls in with the more extreme Suffragettes and begins clandestinely assisting them in their more daring exploits.  Encounters with the police, violence, escapes, and a chance meeting with a young man leads Bea to an unexpected path.  The War breaks her ties with the Suffragettes and she volunteers to drive ambulances in France.

While I sympathized with Grace, I quickly grew impatient with and frustrated with Bea, especially at the start of the novel. Bea only seemed to come into her own when she went through her own heartbreak.  However, Park Lane, the book seems to reflect the period quite well and I'd recommend it to others who are fond of historical fiction.

ISBN-10: 0345803280 - Paperback $15.95
Publisher: Vintage (June 12, 2012), 336 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Frances Osborne was born in London and studied philosophy and modern languages at Oxford University. She is the author of Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter. Her articles have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Independent, the Daily Mail, and Vogue. She lives in London with her husband, George Osborne, and their two children. 

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