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Review: The Novel in the Viola

Heart-strings played too sentimentally

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By Natasha Solomons
Sceptre, £12.99

Natasha Solomons published her first novel last year. Mr Rosenblum's List was the charming, bitter-sweet story of a Jewish refugee couple who come to Britain in the 1930s.

Jack wants to be an English gentleman and, after being rejected by one golf club after another, decides to move to the country to build his own golf course. His wife Sadie goes along with his plans but her heart remains in Germany and she is tormented by memories of the family she left behind.

The Novel in the Viola is also about a Jewish refugee rebuilding life in rural England.

Elise Landau is the younger daughter of an artistic Jewish family from Vienna. Her mother, Anna, is a gifted singer, her father, Julian, a novelist. After the Anschluss, Elise and her sister Margot manage to escape - Elise to work as a maid in a grand English country house, Margot and her husband to California.

Elise arrives with a few precious belongings, among them her mother's pearls and the manuscript of her father's latest novel, hidden inside a viola. The question that haunts the novel is whether the family will be reunited.

While waiting for news of her parents, Elise tries to create a life in Tyneford House, battling with a new language and an alien world with its very different rules and hierarchies. Like the Rosenblums, she encounters casual antisemitism and indifference to her terrible plight but, in the course of time, she manages to win over the others in the household, both upstairs and downstairs.

The Novel in the Viola has the same strengths and weaknesses of Solomons's first novel. It is a fast and pleasant read, full of ups and downs. Solomons creates a large cast of characters, many familiar from other country-house stories. There is Mrs Ellsworth, the no-nonsense housekeeper with a heart of gold; Mr Wrexham, the butler, who rules the house like a mix of Mr Hudson from Upstairs, Downstairs and Stevens in The Remains of the Day; Mr Rivers, the master of the house, who is kind but aloof; and his dashing son, Kit. Julian Fellowes knows this world better and, unlike Fellowes, Solomons doesn't really bring it to life.

The novel is full of references to romantic fiction, especially Jane Eyre: a passionate young woman who against all odds finds love and happiness in a forbidding country house.

But this has none of Bronte's beautiful writing and is indeed closer to "chick lit". As for Jewish refugees from Vienna, there are many more authentic and evocative accounts, among them Zweig's The World of Yesterday, George Clare's Last Waltz in Vienna or most recently, The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Both Vienna and the English country house seem second-hand, too derivative, lacking a spark of fresh insight which might have brought this sentimental love story to life.

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