A House at Tyneford
by Natasha Solomons begins on the eve of WWII where we meet Elise Landau, a 19 year old whose life of relative luxury is coming to abrupt end as Jews are no longer safe in Vienna. Her parents, because of their prominence – her mother is an opera singer and her father is a novelist - believe they will be able to obtain visas and escape to the States, but Elise has no marketable skills. So, as a stop gap, they send her to safety in England on a domestic service visa.
She is sent to an estate in Tyneford, a tightly knit, sleepy little rural seaside village. The Lord of the manor is the 40ish Mr. Rivers. He’s a kindly man, but he maintains old world reserve and draws a clear line between the family and the staff. So, Elise who had her own servants in Vienna doesn’t fit in with the servants or the family.
She’s lonely, she’s had no word from her parents and she’s terrified for them, war has broken out, and Elise is crestfallen. That is, until Mr. River’s son, Kit, returns home from school at Oxford. He and Elise become fast friends, and even fall in love.
Meanwhile, the village is changing quickly. The local lads are going off to war, Mr. Rivers has to work the fields himself to help keep the estate running. The distinction between “upstairs” and “downstairs” begins to melt away as people pull together to soothe the sorrows that war brings to the home front.
This lovely novel explores family relationships, the remnants of the dying household service system, class snobbery that brushes both ways, disappearing village life. It’s both sad and sweet and has a satisfying ending. I think it would make a great selection for book discussion groups.l