Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: Summerset Abbey by T.J. Brown


1913: In a sprawling manor on the outskirts of London, three young women seek to fulfill their destinies and desires amidst the unspoken rules of society and the distant rumblings of war. . . .

Rowena Buxton

Sir Philip Buxton raised three girls into beautiful and capable young women in a bohemian household that defied Edwardian tradition. Eldest sister Rowena was taught to value people, not wealth or status. But everything she believes will be tested when Sir Philip dies, and the girls must live under their uncle’s guardianship at the vast family estate, Summerset Abbey. Standing up for a beloved family member sequestered to the “underclass” in this privileged new world, and drawn into the Cunning Coterie, an exclusive social circle of aristocratic “rebels,” Rowena must decide where her true passions—and loyalties—lie.

Victoria Buxton

Frail in body but filled with an audacious spirit, Victoria secretly dreams of attending university to become a botanist like her father. But this most unladylike wish is not her only secret—Victoria has stumbled upon a family scandal that, if revealed, has the potential to change lives forever. . . .

Prudence Tate

Prudence was lovingly brought up alongside Victoria and Rowena, and their bond is as strong as blood. But by birth she is a governess’s daughter, and to the lord of Summerset Abbey, that makes her a commoner who must take her true place in society—as lady’s maid to her beloved “sisters.” But Pru doesn’t belong in the downstairs world of the household staff any more than she belongs upstairs with the Buxton girls. And when a young lord catches her eye, she begins to wonder if she’ll ever truly carve out a place for herself at Summerset Abbey.

Gallery Books | 320 pages | January 15, 2013

My Review

3.5 Stars

Set just prior to the start of the First World War, T. J. Brown's Summerset Abbey is a novel about three women, sisters Rowena and Victoria Buxton, and Prudence Tate.  Although born into an aristocratic family, Rowena and Victoria were raised by their father in a most unconventional manner.  Prudence Tate, the daughter of the Buxton sisters' governess, was raised right along side the girls and always made to feel part of the family.  When their father unexpectedly passes away, Rowena and Victoria pass into the guardianship of their uncle and are forced to move to their family's country estate, Summerset Abbey.  While both sisters love the Abbey, Rowena refuses to move unless Prudence is permitted to accompany them.  But, as the daughter of a governess, Prudence is not welcome at the Abbey in any role but that of a servant and, as a result, she forced to serve as Rowena and Victoria's lady's maid.  Life at the Abbey is nothing like life in the home they grew up in, and all three women must come to terms with new expectations and roles. 

The greatest strength of this novel is the strong sense of place that Brown has created.  Through often vivid descriptions of the Abbey, its inhabitants and its guests, the reader is able to gain an appreciation for daily life - both upstairs and down - on an English estate.  Rowena, Victoria and Prudence are well-developed characters and, because the narrative's focus alternates between each of the three women, the reader comes to understand their individual hopes, fears and motivations.  The only shortcoming of this novel is that with little to no mention made of events happening outside the confines of the Abbey, it doesn't evoke a strong sense of time.  As a result, even though the novel's summary indicates it is set in 1913, there is little evidence in the book that the start of World War I was only a year away.  Lastly, while many readers may find the novel's conclusion abrupt, given its unexpected nature it heightens anticipation for the sequel, A Bloom in Winter, which will be released in March.

Overall an enjoyable novel with interesting and engaging characters, Summerset Abbey is recommended to fans of Edwardian-era historical fiction and to fans of the TV show Downton Abbey.

Note: A copy of this novel was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.