Patricia Bretton, like her mother and grandmother, has become a servant to the great house, gardens and farms. When her father suddenly dies, the family is plunged into a crisis that is bound up with a long-standing conflict with the Chances, who remain tenants for their lands because the Brettons always refused to sell. Only Patricia has the chance of reaching through the enmities. If she can, she might be able to forge a life for herself outside the heavy weight of Bretton tradition.
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Woodhouse's previous period novels, set in the early 1800's, (The Native Air, 1991, etc.) featured admirable, strong-minded-and- limbed females coping with moldering estates and feckless men, a smattering of entertaining eccentrics, and a tangle of involvements. Here--in the 1920's--the women, living and dead (the past is a constant presence), are the first-rate copers, the country estate in splendid decay, and the story simple, weighted by country time and character as a woman at midlife learns some secrets, surmounts a crisis. Queenly, tough Harriet died in 1892, and then daughter-in-law Deborah died in childbirth. Now, Patricia (``Paddy''), in her 40s, has been forced to rent Bretton Hall, which Harriet had struggled to save and which Paddy's brother Tom, in Italy, would be happy to sell. The tenants are an ill-matched pair: flighty, restless Laura; kind, subdued Hugh; and their child Etta, an ungainly eight-year- old, who begins to blossom and tag along with gruff, strong, wildly unfashionable Paddy. Meanwhile, throughout the days of the hard- working country rounds, as Laura flits to Paris and Hugh begins to discover some new affections, there are many contacts with John, the current Chance--the Chances being tenant farmers become prosperous but declared by the Bretton men always out of bounds. Why? And what did three generations of Chance men mean to Bretton women? The secret to which Etta--literally--holds the key is revealed...but can Bretton Hall be saved? Settled in the lovely countryside with its ``sense of extraordinary permanence in the ancient trees''--and with the story matching the slow steady pace of seasonal change--this is the author's best to date (Woodhouse seems more at home in a more recent time period). A prime re-creation for country-minded Anglophiles. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.From Publishers Weekly:
The fifth novel from Woodhouse ( The Native Air ) takes place in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and traces the lives of three women of successive generations in the Bretton family. Harriet, her daughter-in-law Deborah and Deborah's daughter Patricia must cope with the debts, crises and dwindling fortunes of the passive, unambitious Bretton men, heirs to a huge ancestral estate. In the 1920s, "Paddy," age 40 and unmarried, tries to maintain the estate with few remaining servants while caring for her father in a small estate house, the Lodge. Desperate for funds, she rents the crumbling, yet still majestic, Bretton Hall to Hugh and Laura Haley and their nine-year-old daughter Etta, who "hears" ghosts. In clumsy flashbacks, Harriet and Deborah's generations are shown feuding with the local Chance family in events that will reverberate in Paddy's life. After their father's death, Paddy's brother Tom decides to sell the estate and a dramatic revelation challenges her right to remain. A mystery is solved by Etta and the ghosts reveal surprising news about Paddy. Less minutiae and fewer plot convolutions would have saved the reader from much confusion.
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