Debutantes (by Charlotte Bingham)

I have quite a few of Charlotte Bingham's novels on my shelves. I've very much enjoyed her more recent ones, although I've been less impressed with some of her earlier books. Still, I've picked most of them up very inexpensively at charity shops and thrift stores, and friends like to borrow them.

'Debutantes' is one of her earlier novels, and also one of the longest. At 700 pages in paperback, it's a long read. However, it's taken me over two weeks to get through it, which is considerably more than I had expected. Despite several glowing reviews on various book-selling sites, I wasn't very impressed, and had to keep picking it up deliberately to read another chapter, rather than finding myself drawn to it continually.

It's the story of three young ladies - debutantes - who are to make their first appearance at the London season, around 100 years ago. Apparently little had changed since the Regency period, another century earlier. Upper class girls were displayed in balls, presented at court in hugely expensive gowns, and hoped to catch rich - and preferably likeable - husbands.

The book is divided into four sections. The first three introduce the three girls, one at a time, in their homes, showing them in the months prior to their season in London.

The first section is a bit confusing, since it's primarily the story of a 'nouveau riche' couple and their daughter who buy a house from Lady Lanford, a rather unpleasant woman who was once the most beautiful girl in London, and who enjoys liaisons with many married men, including royalty. It's not until near the end of the first section that we're introduced to May, a stunningly beautiful girl brought up in a convent, who is to be launched into society.

The second and third sections introduce Portia and Emily, the other two debutantes. Unfortunately, I didn't find either of them memorable. One of them grows up with a bohemian and scatty aunt, and is fond of sailing; the other grows up in Ireland, and is fond of horses. They both seemed very flat, personality-wise, and although I only finished the book last night, I'd already forgotten which was which.

The final section is about the season itself, when these three girls are launched into society. There's a lot of social history that's fairly interesting, which goes into a lot more detail than - for instance - Georgette Heyer about the problems besetting these girls, such as the ridiculous nature of the court presentation. We also get a glimpse of the working classes of London, who apparently hung around just hoping for a sight of the various girls.

There's a fair bit of plot, which really could have been written in just the first and fourth section without any need for Portia and Emily. But since my preference is for character-based novels with strong emotion in places, I didn't find this particularly appealing as a novel.

I did finally make my way to the end, wondering what would happen - indeed, I gather there's a sequel to this, so if I happen to see it in a charity shop I may well buy it. But I wouldn't rate it above average.

Still, it could make good holiday reading, since it's easy enough to put down and is sufficiently light that it doesn't exercise many brain cells. It's not a bad book - just lacking characterisation.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 28th October 2008

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