Note: There are no spoilers in this review.
This book has gotten quite a few 5/5 ratings by other bloggers. Thus I hesitate to say that I was not as much taken with this book. It does have a number of twists, but I don’t think Pears rendered them as skillfully as some other authors. Likewise, his evocation of the pre-war mood in Europe did not seem very sophisticated. While I didn’t totally dislike it, I am not disposed to rave about it.
A mystery is spun for us out of the question of why John Stone, the First (and last) Baron Ravenscliff, fell or was pushed from the window of his home in London in 1909. John Stone was a financial genius who had vast holdings in a number of industries and banks closely tied to war and diplomacy. The extent of his power could only be guessed at, and his estate was rumored to be huge. Moreover, he had a fear of heights and never went near windows.
To get the bottom of this enigma, the story moves backwards in time, revealing more and more with each different perspective offered, until in the last few pages, the mystery is finally solved.
Ordinarily, getting there should be most of the fun, but for me, in the case of this book, it was not.
The story in Part One is told by Matthew Broddick, a young and inconsequential reporter inexplicably chosen by the widow Lady Catherine Ravenscliff to investigate some perplexing bequests in her late husband’s will. Broddick finds he has to learn a great deal about finances even to ask the right questions. We, the readers, get tutored as well. In addition, Pears attempts to draw us into the Edwardian Era in London, but after discovering how an author like Sarah Waters could bring the Victorian Era alive, the effort by Pears seems like a careless afterthought.
In Part Two, we go back to 1890 to hear from Henry Cort, an enigmatic and powerful agent of Special Services (i.e., government spy) who seems to have a history with both Stone and his wife. The book starts to get more interesting here, as we get to know the Baron and Lady Ravenscliff more intimately.
In Part Three, we hear from John Stone himself, in 1867 Venice. This should be the best part, and in a way it is, because much becomes clear, but in a more important sense, it is not. In order to work out his plot twists, Pears renders Stone as a man who is incredibly naïve and gulled easily by all sorts of people. Unfortunately this is totally at odds with his reputation for an unparalleled ability to see through and understand people. Moreover, Pears runs on interminably about Venice and the people who live there – to draw out the suspense, perhaps? Since we are well past page 400 by the point that Part Three starts, I hardly think that an adequate justification. The only good thing about the author’s nattering on about the decay of Venice is that he is no longer nattering on about the allure of Lady Ravenscliff, which he could have mentioned at least a hundred fewer times.
And when the mystery is solved? Yes, it’s a complete surprise, but it’s pretty bizarre and unlikely for a number of reasons (primarily because I cannot believe the person who discovered it would have been able to do so).
Evaluation: Edit, edit, edit! Please! Even if shortened, I was not so impressed with the writing. For drawing us into a past way of life, he is no Sarah Waters. For discussing the politics and economics of “the winds of war,” he is no Herman Wouk. For an investigation into a financial dynasty, he is no Stieg Larsson. For maintaining suspense, he’s too dilatory. At least 200 pages could have been pared (so to speak) off of this Pears.
However, bloggers whose opinions I highly respect have loved this book.
Published by Spiegel & Grau, 2009