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Monday, 13 June 2011

The Novel in the Viola - Natasha Solomons does it again

If you like an Upstairs/Downstairs story, try The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons. Natasha won acclaim for her first novel, Mr Rosenblum's List and this is her second. It's equally as appealing, though not in the same genre. It has an evocative pre-war appeal and covers a familiar theme about people who don't fit in - the outsiders. Natasha bases her characters and plots on her relations, her grandfather for Mr Rosenblum and this time the honour goes to her great aunt Gabi Landau, who escaped the Holocaust by applying for a job here as a domestic servant.

The Novel in the Viola is an enchanting love story and it will warm the cockles of your heart. It's 1938 in Vienna and Elise Rosa Landau puts an ad in The Times offering her services as a domestic servant. She 'speaks fluid English' and she's offered a position as house parlour maid at Tyneford House in Dorset, home of widow Mr Rivers and his son Kit. Why does she do such a thing?

Her mother, Anna is an operatic heroine star in Vienna and her father, Julian an avant-garde novelist. Her older sister, Margot is a professional viola player and is married to Robert, an astronomer. Natasha builds up a rich picture of their affluent middle class life in Vienna, where glamorous and talented people's lives are about to be shattered. The girls' parents plan to flee to New York but can't get a visa for Elise, aged 19. Operatic luminaries offer Anna jobs to get her out of Austria but the authorities are making things more and more difficult for Jewish people to move around freely, let alone leave the country.

Elise never sees her parents again but Margot and Robert make it to San Francisco where they eventually become Americanised. Elise becomes Mr Rivers's servant but doesn't fit in with the below stairs bunch. They know she's really a lady. Neither is she accepted by the upper crust young men and women in Kit's circle. They know she's a Jewish refugee. Fortunately, the Rivers' do accept her and even try to help bring her parents over to England. But the extent of the class system is highlighted for there is social order below as well as above stairs and some nastiness from the upper crust. Meanwhile, Elise sets her cap at Kit, who sets his at her.

Some of it felt like Daphne du Maurier in tone and elsewhere it smacked of Jane Eyre. But it was an unputdownable read for me and I enjoyed the meticulous research into pre-war life in Vienna, the Master/Servant relationship and the life and times of the upper classes in war torn Britain. And I had fallen in love with Mr Rivers as soon as he arrived on the page.

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons is published by Sceptre. Natasha lives in Dorset and she and her husband have written the screenplay for Mr Rosenblum's List for Film 4/Cowboy Films. Log on to her website at

1 comment:

LindyLouMac in Italy said...

I am ashamed to admit that her first novel is still on my TBR list, my husband read it ages ago and keeps telling me I should do so. I will certainly be adding this one to my wishlist after reading this review..