Under an English Heaven – Alice K. Boatwright

Which is a great title, isn’t it? Of course I bought it.

Unfortunately, I hated it.

No, that’s not accurate; it really wasn’t bad, in terms of writing or all the usual reasons a book is bad. I liked some of the writing – the description of the burning of the Guy was vivid, for example. I didn’t *hate* it. I just really, really didn’t like it. At all.

The idea is this: an English vicar, Graham, goes on sabbatical in California, comes home married; his first wife died a little while ago. New American wife, Ellie, formerly a college English professor, must now adapt to trying to live up to the memory of the beloved dead wife, drinking tea, filling the role of Vicar’s Wife, and driving on the left. Meanwhile, on Halloween, an old man is murdered, and Ellie finds the body in the graveyard, and through a series of unlikely yet believable events becomes a person of great interest to the police.

Given that the book opens a few months after the wedding, when they’ve moved together into the home Graham formerly shared with Wife #1, I have all sorts of problems with that summary. How long have they in fact been married? Don’t know. How long ago did they move in? I don’t know. How long has the first wife been dead? I don’t know. If I was told any of this in the text (and I admit I possibly was without registering it) I didn’t retain the information, and afterward I had no interest in going hunting. I should know. They’re kind of important pieces of information; it all plays a big part in how I’m supposed to feel about Graham, and how the villagers can be expected to look at Ellie. She’s gone for years? Okay, he’s still young (I assume – I don’t know), good for him. She’s gone for months? I hope he’s dead by the end of the book. Next, the daughter: how old is she? I don’t know. She’s away at school for most of the book – but that could be any age above say six. Contextually she seems to be a teenager or older – say thirteen or up. Again, I should know. It matters.

Even the description of the girl refuses to give her age – or coloration, or anything else useful: “Isabelle was not as tall as Ellie, but nearly, and, as they hugged, her bones felt fragile and light beneath the skimpy clothes she wore: a cropped sweater and skintight jeans. She had Louise’s beautiful fine features and clear fresh complexion, but Graham’s lankiness and shining intelligent eyes.” Thanks, that’s marvelous. It’s well put – but …

This is a cozy sort of a mystery – in that it takes place in a sweet English village, and the vicar’s wife investigates the death of an old man who seems to be unknown and unimportant to anyone in the place. This should mean that one of the main reasons to read it would be the characters. Unfortunately, for me they were the worst part of the book. Graham, the vicar, is a nonentity. I can’t imagine why Ellie would marry him; he’s introduced naked, so perhaps the author thought that would be a shortcut to explaining the attraction: “Look, they just had sex! He must be worth giving up everything for!” But he fades into the wallpaper, even naked – except when he is being an ass. That observation comprises quite a few of the notes I made on the Kindle, just a one-word comment on some of his actions (like showing signs of believing his new wife could be a murderer): “ass”. There is an incident with a bouquet of flowers relating to the anniversary of the first wife’s death, which Ellie mistook as being for her, and that was just altogether moronic, pointless, and annoying.

The rest of the villagers are an unpleasant lot; the children are hooligans, and the adults are snide or standoffish, except for another “incomer”, a gay shopowner who strikes up a friendship with Ellie. Well, after a while it starts to morph into friendship; it starts out with him making snide or outright insulting remarks and taking his dead ex-partner’s golden retriever everywhere, including church. (Really?)

The police are just antisocial thugs. I don’t know what to think about them.

I don’t want to think too much about the silly bint who names her child “Dolphin”.

And Ellie, Our Heroine? You know how most of my comments about his vicarness amounted to “ass”? Most of my comments about Ellie amounted to “bitch”. The reader is expected to believe that she was a professor of English literature, specializing in Jane Austen apparently, when she met Graham, fell in love, and dropped her entire life to move across the ocean to become the vicar’s wife of a smallish village. What I would expect would be something like clear evidence of a huge and overwhelming love between the two of them, which would explain the vicar’s sudden emergence from grieving his beloved first wife as well as Ellie’s willingness to abruptly cut loose from family, friends, career, country. Continent. I would also expect something from Ellie along the lines of “I’ve been reading about England all my life now OMG I’m living here hey this isn’t Jane Austen’s England”… I would expect her to be one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve read in a long time, with her study of the role of gossip in the novels of Jane Austen.

Instead, there is nothing about Ellie’s decision to cut all her ties and relocate. She seems thoroughly unwilling to do anything expected of her as a vicar’s wife, and indeed comes off as thoroughly heartless, warbling Beatles songs in the car as she drives (probably on the wrong side of the road) to the home of a family that has just lost a child. There is nothing about giving up her career (of how many years, I don’t know – how old is *she* supposed to be, anyway?), or leaving family and friends – except that she seems to be avoiding their emails (scrolling past “urgent messages” – really? REALLY??); why? I don’t know. (And why doesn’t anyone call her?) How does she feel about becoming a step-mother to an-I-don’t-know-how-old girl, other than awkward? I don’t know. All I know is she hates driving or even riding in a car on the left side of the road, and occasionally mourns her former diet of tofu and such.

For the matter of that, what color is her hair? I don’t know. Eyes? Don’t know. Age range? Don’t know. (This, by the way, all goes for every character in the book. While sometimes descriptions can get irritating, a complete lack of description is worse. For the most part there is only a précis of what someone is wearing, and maybe a general impression.) Siblings? Don’t know. Best friend from home? Don’t know. Dogs or cats? Hopefully dogs since her husband has one, but – don’t know. (Although she looks askance at a golden retriever, and without reason asks if it is “in the habit of attacking people”, so she doesn’t sound like a dog person.) She meanders into her new life with a combination of resentfulness and extreme sensitivity on the subject of her predecessor (and no help at all from hubby there)(at all), condescending distaste for the habits and customs and beef stew of the people by who she is now surrounded and a near-complete lack of real willingness to make an effort, and a general air of “I am so much smarter than all of you, and I eat tofu, and I can’t believe you people believe in God – I’m American, get over it and get stuffed.” Which isn’t, I wouldn’t think, a good attitude to take with the cops.

And defensive and touchy as she is over being questioned by the police, it never occurs to her to make sure a lawyer is at her side.

“Nothing in her marriage vows had mentioned baking!”
My note – and you can tell it’s deeply annoyed, given the length when I had to hunt and peck: “for god’s sake any idiot can make cookies and if you don’t want to then damn well don’t and smile and tell the old bats so”.

Her scholarship is … frankly ridiculous. “Her whole career had been focused on prising out information about who writers were from what they wrote” – which is how all those people get tangled up about whether a certain playwright actually wrote what he wrote. Speaking of whom: “‘All the world’s a stage,’ she thought, was clearly written by someone who had lived in an English village.” Yes, clever clogs. In Stratford. What a startling observation by an English lit professor. Honestly, I found her intelligence questionable:
“Graham said it never worked to pray for results. You had to pray for acceptance of the results, whatever they were. Ellie could not understand that. What kind of magic was that?”

Er… magic and faith: actually not the same thing.

“It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t fit in and probably never would. She had tried.”
Did not.

And her jealousy is horrendous. She’s jealous of Dead First Wife, jealous of step-daughter Isabelle’s relationship with Graham (since she herself has a less than great relationship with her own father, and because he has the temerity to want to spend time with her). It’s all at a level that one might expect in a gothic novel.

The writing was better than some … but then again it wasn’t always. There is a eulogy that made my toes curl, and not in a good way. Then there were things like “‘I don’t know why these old girls are so attached to scatter rugs. I mean the name says it all, don’t it?'” No… if you mean they’re slippery, no, it doesn’t.

It’s a little sad that up till late in the book I was rooting for a solution that amounted to Graham dead and Ellie standing over him red-handed, having previously killed the other victims in the village as well as a string of others back in the States. Oh well. And it’s a shame; there are moments here that I really did like: that unlikely confluence of data and events that makes the police give Ellie some very hard looks was pretty well done, and her fear and horror at how things were falling apart was done pretty well – in the beginning, until it turned into “dammit, I’m from the home of NYPD Blue and CSI, I’m not afraid of you, you’re stupid”. I actually liked her difficulties with the whole left-side-of-the-road thing; it can’t be easy and it can’t be fun. But she was so overall horrible that I would have been delighted to see her arrested – or maybe the final murder victim. That would have worked too.

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