REVIEW: Iris in Winter by Elizabeth Cadell
High Ambo, in England, is the setting. It is winter, and Caroline West—a very human, placid and unexcitable person, has gone there to escape her late husband’s relatives. Like so many good-hearted people, she is immediately put upon. Caroline’s sister Iris comes first, full of impulse and determination to be a reporter—an ambition abruptly deflected by a handsome young schoolmaster—an authority on birds. Then comes Robert, with his sweet, ingenuous fiancee Polly, and thus making the three-ring circus of a genuine Cadell household. A great number of little boys with big ears and caps are supporting players—English private school variety. Altogether, this book is in the happiest tradition of the English social comedy,
I’d actually bought this book ages ago but with weather around me turning colder, the title called to me. From the blurb, I had the impression that the story would center on Caroline with the others as satellite characters but actually the entire cast of characters are all given their moments to shine.
“Three ring circus” does describe things fairly well but Cadell does such a good job of slowly introducing everyone, that I never felt overwhelmed by them all. Things have happened in the characters’ pasts that are merely mentioned without much ado such as why calm Caroline married her first husband and what her issues with his family were. Perhaps this would have been more obvious at the time but for me, I just accepted that she wanted and needed to get away to the country and from them. Also there is a very nice man who keeps asking her to marry him and rationing is still going strong in the UK.
For complicated reasons, Caroline’s younger and vibrant sister Iris (of the title) comes to stay in this rather tiny country house. Iris has a reason to be there, not that she does much with it as almost from the start she is equally fascinated and irritated by a local schoolmaster she meets – along with one of the schoolboys – on the train there. Michael Sheridan is the French teacher but also a passionate birdwatcher and gets roped into teaching some of the boys riding – though due to the war, there are few horses to be found for this and none of them docile.
The sisters have a brother who exasperates and maddens most people he meets so they are astounded when his fiancee arrives and appears to actually adore Robert. Polly is a whirlwind of charm – she made me think of a cross between a young Audrey Hepburn and Audrey Tautou – and despite all the sisters frankly tell her about Robert, she professes to love him and understand what he’s like.
Then there is Mr. —
who reminds me of S.Z. Sakall (even though Sakall was Hungarian and Mr. ” –Swintzchell–” is Swiss). And yes, once you read the story, the way I’ve typed his name will make sense. Mr. “–Swintzchell–” is a darling music professor who manages to sweet talk and befuddle the characters into doing just about anything he wants even if those people are dead set against it at the time he starts talking.
The schoolboys are charming as well and speak in the “I say, thanks awfully. I say, that’s awfully good of you. I’d love to awfully.” sort of manner and are actually awfully sweet and willing to do odd jobs then help Caroline eat scones and cake.
However I do have a few issues with some things. There is a slow burn romance and a no burn romance here. The no burn one just sort of happens and honestly the two people involved appear to drift into it – or one of them does – with the idea that life would be fine if the marriage happened or if it didn’t. Not exactly riveting but perhaps this was Cadell poking gentle fun at the “no sex, please, we’re British” stereotype.
Then there was the other one that seemed to be proceeding through all kinds of thickets and tangles until it gets squashed seemingly for good. I sat staring at my ereader thinking “Oh, no. Cadell can’t leave it like this!” Well, she didn’t and perhaps one of my favorite characters in the book arrives as a deus ex machina to save the day. Yes, alright putting up with having my hopes stomped a few times is worth this person.
I also wondered at a few subplots that, though they’re amusing and fun to read, don’t truly appear to have been needed. Yet while I was laughing my way through them, I was enjoying them so I guess they worked after all. B