I hesitate before reading a book by someone I “know” on Goodreads. It’s tricky; if I like it, great – but then a positive review sounds suspicious. If I don’t like it, the diplomatic engineering of that review is a challenge. I loved the synopsis for The House of Closed Doors, though – and the cover! That really is the most gorgeous cover – and so I quietly went off and bought it from Amazon.
I’m pleased to say I’m friends with Jane Steen on GR. And I enjoyed her book very much. So there. (It just took me forever and a day to finish and post this review – my apologies!)
Oh, I do like Nell Lillington. As a character. I’m not sure how charmed I’d be in person; she starts off this tale as an admittedly spoiled and self-centered seventeen year old girl, who has never had any reason or impetus to become anything else. She has had license to flirt all her life – it’s great fun, a skill she has developed to fine art. She has no inclination to marry – not out of an anachronistic desire to hoe her own row, but at least in part because there are no good candidates about, not even her dear old friend Martin. However, combined with the sheer criminal ignorance girls were kept in for … ever, one afternoon’s flirtation with a visiting cousin develops in a way she could never see coming. And a few months later the pregnancy she has been hiding is abruptly revealed to her mother and step-father.
Speaking of lovely characters. I loved Nell’s mother – soft and sweet, but no fool, she; I loved to hate her step-father, who just, shall we say, did not improve upon acquaintance. I think the best of the two of them was that neither was entirely one thing: Nell’s mother is tougher than she seems (she’s had to be), and can deal with difficulties more readily than many women of her period and class. And Hiram is … no, I don’t want to use that word. No, not that one, either… Hm. He’s arrogant, and self-centered, and harshly (hypocritically) righteous – but he truly does love his wife and will do anything for her. That came really close to redeeming him, until more information started to come out.
The House of Closed Doors is peopled by characters who are not of sorts often seen in historical fiction – any fiction, really, and reading this I kept wondering why. Nell is a self-centered girl, naïve yet proceeding under the delusion that she is in complete control of her life – until it is very forcefully proven to her that there are a great many things beyond her power. She’s not a Mary Sue, not a Standard Issue Teenaged Girl Circa 1870; she is well-rounded and has a life of her own. Her self-absorption (which is partly down to her age and status) makes her an unlikely friend to Tess, a girl who is now easily recognizable as having Down Syndrome, and who was then simply considered damaged. Tess is one of the parts of the book that lingers – partly because she too was a beautifully drawn character who was more than just the sum of her adjectives, and partly because I can’t shake the question of why on earth more isn’t written about those with Down Syndrome in other time periods and what they went through.
Nell’s friend Martin is a pretty special character as well. It’s a pleasure to read about a man the likes of which just about everyone knows, a “type”, if I may, who has to have existed in every era: the handsome, unattached man who, in today’s parlance, pings the gay-dar without quite setting it off. He’s not known for wenching – this could be virtue, or inclination of one sort or another. He might be in love with Nell – or it might just be the affection of a true friend. One thing’s certain: if you’re a man and you impugn his manhood, you will find yourself on your back watching stars and birdies circle overhead. I liked him at least as much as I like Nell, and I particularly enjoyed not knowing where the story would take him, or them. Would there be a “them”? Would there be love, a mariage de convenance, a continuance of their friendship -? At different points in the book I had different guesses. I think they were all wrong. I love that.
For some reason I wasn’t expecting the level of suspense and mystery in the story. What I was expecting to be a sort of a coming-of-age story became not only that but much more as well. And while the ending set me up for the sequel, and I can’t wait to find out where these folks go next (literally), The House of Closed Doors is very, very satisfying in its own right.