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Friday, 1 March 2013

Windfall by Penny Vincenzi

Wow, I've neglected this blog for a while now, haven't I? February has been a weird month for me, and the weirdness will probably continue until I get my dissertations in and my schedule evens out a bit. As it is, my schedule has meant that my reading of Windfall was rather sporadic, shall we say. In any case, I've finally got it done and I get to revisit my poor neglected blog.

Windfall is actually pretty complex plot-wise. The plot is triggered when Cassia, the wife of a village doctor, finds out that she has inherited half a million pounds from her godmother. Up until this point, Cassia hasn't really enjoyed her life, feeling that her duty to her husband and children has been preventing her from following the medical career that has prepared herself for for most of her life; now with the money, she finds that she can ease herself back into the workplace, a move that fills her husband, Edward, with resentment. The money also brings her back into close contact with her godmother's family and friends, several of whom also become centrally involved in the very convoluted plot. All of this is also reflected in the historical setting, which details the short reign of King Edward VIII and his controversial relationship with divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.
This book is essentially a soap opera set in interwar Britain. The amount of plot threads and melodrama that packed into over 600 pages is quite extraordinary, now that I think about it. I only realised just how much like a soap opera it was when I was talking to my fiancĂ© about it: failed/failing marriages everywhere you look, dark secrets, disastrous misunderstandings and much more. To be honest, I generally find soap operas to be laughable at best, so I was surprised at how I was still somehow invested in what was some of the most over-the-top plotting that I've seen in a long time. That I was invested at all considering how lukewarm I felt about it at the start is something of an achievement too; in the beginning, the reader is focused pretty much entirely on Cassia and her marriage to Edward, and they are by far the weakest characters of the entire book. With Cassia, she managed to be both a Mary Sue (a character idealised by the author regardless of actual merit or character) and completely uninteresting: usually Mary Sues are hilarious because of their over-the-top characterisation and poor construction; in Cassia's case she was just boring, but somehow treated by other characters as if she were this extraordinary force of personality. Combine that with a background in which EVERY SINGLE ADULT involved in her childhood was feminist to one degree or another; I'm sorry, I know that she was meant to appeal to a modern audience, but I cannot believe that in the day and age that it was set in that she would have had so many people telling her "Hell yeah, you can be a doctor if you work hard enough!" You just about get that as it is today, let alone in the 1910s. As for Edward, never have I seen such an insufferable, bitter and insecure little man in fiction as him; I read about him and pretty much instantly pegged him as a "Nice Guy", so when Cassia starts feeling guilty about their failing marriage my first thought was "Ditch him. Now." I assume that I was meant to think, "Oh no, poor Cassia, she doesn't want to hurt him, but he's just not right for her." I couldn't, simply because it was so obvious that he was forcing her to stay in the role of home-maker, a role that she does not naturally lean towards or enjoy particularly, because he was scared that she might go into medicine and potentially *gasp* be better at it at it than him. It was pathetic and really unattractive to read about.
On the other hand, the side characters are actually pretty interesting. My favourite was probably Cecily, a high-class woman married to Cassia's godmother's brother, Benedict; her attempts to make her marriage work when it's clear that her husband's straying interest is making it fall apart is truly heartbreaking, but at the same time it is easy to see where she is only contributing to its failure despite her intentions. Another character who was very interesting was Edwina, who decides to start working as a means to delay an inevitable confession to the husband that she sometimes gets along with but has never truly loved; she was more spiky and abrasive, with a very self-centred world view, but was nonetheless fascinating to watch if not terribly sympathetic at times. These two are by no means the only wonderful characters in this book: hell, you could include almost the entire cast in this category, which only makes it all the more frustrating that the author chose Cassia as her main lead.

Overall, Windfall was entertaining, but very flawed. I would recommend this to people who don't mind reading something that reads like a soap opera but are still in for the long haul. I might read it again someday, but I can't imagine it would be with any real urgency. 3.5/5

Next review: Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Signing off,

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