REVIEW: Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson
Tonia has lived all her life in the quiet Scottish countryside and can’t imagine herself anywhere else. But when her beloved older sister gets married and moves away, Tonia begins to wonder if there aren’t bigger things on the horizon for her too.
The advent of World War II brings Tonia briefly to the heart of London, where the roar of fighter planes echoes through the night and bombings are a constant threat—but just as she’s settling into her new life, a heart-breaking tragedy sends her back home to Scotland. With new friends by her side, Tonia thinks she may have finally found the place where she is supposed to be. But the war interferes again with her plans, and she fears that the person she loves most may be lost to her forever.
I am so happy that Sourcebooks is continuing to release these long OOP books by D.E. Stevenson. I mean, look at the prices for used copies and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, “Listening Valley” is the latest and takes us from the 1930s through most of World War II. I have a question though. What is a rose-leaf complexion?
The book starts with Tonia and her older sister, Lou, as young girls in Edinburgh and takes some time before they even reach adulthood. There is a reason for this in that both of them meet their future loves early on but I did find myself slightly impatient as the story meandered through their school days.
The story is very time sensitive and also period. There’s the social ostracism faced by one character for (gasp) divorcing her husband and marrying again. And the girls’ mother who is happy to send them off to Nannie every day rather than deal with her daughters herself. I imagine her as the prototypical “lie back and think of England – or in this case Scotland – woman. Then there’s how the working classes viewed their “betters.” Where could you find someone who insists on not only coming over to your house each morning and fixing you breakfast but delivering it to you in bed at no charge? Ah, the good old days. Tonia is viewed as sweet, young thing who can’t possibly handle the money left to her by her wealthy first husband. The solicitors obviously feel that a mere woman can’t be left to manage this. Her stronger SIL, maybe, but not Tonia.
In Tonia’s first marriage, the age difference might squick people out but both parties acknowledge it and were fine. One of Robert’s reasons for proposing to Tonia is questionable – eg namely that he wanted to fix the harm Lou had caused Tonia by making her dependent on Lou and then running away to marry. He is one of the first people to treat Tonia as an adult. Tonia appears to mature and grow as a person because Robert sees her as a confident woman while later she begins to help her husband during the war. He also understands Tonia whereas her own parents are hopeless at it.
I thought the war was well depicted and seems to have come perhaps from the author’s own experiences or those she was told about. One night Tonia is caught out during a bombing raid which is very grippingly conveyed. The descriptions afterward of bombed rubble through which people search for loved ones is ghastly. A young lad’s consternation at taking the tea and sugar needed to sustain the people in an aid station during the night from the destroyed grocer’s without being able to pay speaks of innate decency of the time.
Ah the language. People want to do things “most frightfully.” Fellow airmen are “tremendously good chaps” and the nightly bombs are “a lot of bother.” Everyone discusses ration coupons, has slightly frayed hems, and uses saccharine instead of sugar.
Once a widowed Tonia decides to head back to Scotland, I laughed at how the train porter Tonia meets in Ryddelton views outsiders as “just strangers” but since Tonia has ties to the area, she’s one of them even though she’s never set foot there. Tonia isn’t silly or stupid. She knows which people really want to be with her or like her and which do not. And she loves her “listening valley” she’s found near her new home at Ryddelton.
Initially I wasn’t sure about the blow-by-blow account from the US airmen to Tonia about their raid on Cologne. Then the truth comes out about who “Socks” really is and that Tonia knows him from her youth. His grim older-than-he-looks description sounds like airmen Stevenson must have seen during the war. She and Bay share the same intuition about what the other is thinking or talking about that she did with Robert so it’s fairly obvious who Tonia will end up with.
At slightly past the halfway point it dawns on me that it’s going to be a nice, easy going book. A bit of melodrama here and there but nothing major. These are Nice British people “Carrying On” and Making Do with quiet but fierce patriotism. To me this seems to be Stevenson’s “love letter” to the spirit of the British people during war. I did wonder at a few lengthy scenes about minutia which are more “this is how we’re coping during the war” vs the good old days. There are several passages like this which seem to dither on for really no good plot reason.
I figured out early on what one character was up to though it took the people there long enough to catch on. And once they did, they seemed remarkably blase about it for all the posters that they mentioned seeing about “loose lips sink ships” etc. Tonia is fairly naive and indecisive about this and it just made me want to shake her. Still it is as she’s been presented so I should be ready for it by then and she manages to muddle through.
I should give fair warning that the romance is of the subdued variety wherein they both drift towards it only to realize that they’ve always loved each other. Cracking thunderbolts? No, not for this couple. Theirs is more the Cozy Romance style.
The ending is a little queer – and I mean that in the old fashioned sense. Twue love prevails, there’s going to be a fast wedding in the works because though Tonia would love to have everything done properly, there just isn’t time in this world yet the final scene speaks of the misery still hanging over the world and her hope that the war will end soon. It makes sense because of when the book was originally published (1944) and perhaps Stevenson didn’t want to borrow trouble even for her characters but if the scene had been cut by 1.5 pages, I would have felt cheerier at – The End. B-/C+