03/01/2009

A Proper Family Christmas (by Jane Gordon-Cumming)

I'd never heard of Jane Gordon-Cumming. But Amazon kept recommending her book to me, and it was very highly rated with excellent reviews. Moreover, it was published by Transita, a company whose novels I have (mostly) very much enjoyed reading.

So I put 'A Proper Family Christmas' on my wishlist, and was delighted to receive it for Christmas. So as the New Year began, I thought I'd settle down to read it. I wasn't expecting anything heavy or difficult, and looked forward to enjoying a good light-weight story.

There are a lot of characters in this novel. So many that a family tree is provided at the front, and I found myself referring to it frequently in the early part of the book. It was useful, but I did find myself faintly irritated that the people were introduced so rapidly, and that they weren't rounded enough for me to tell them apart easily.

Nor was it obvious at first who were the 'main' characters. The first chapter sees Hilary, a widow, seeing her only son Daniel off for a climbing holiday. Then we switch to William, owner of a large stately home, who lives alone with his cat. William is a bit grumpy, and has evidently been annoyed by most of his relatives at some point. He really doesn't want to go and stay with his son Stephen who is married to the awful and snobby Leslie, but is even more horrified when he learns that they, and their unattractive son Tobias, are planning to stay with him for Christmas.

Meanwhile Stephen's jolly sister Julia and her philandering husband Tony, along with their rather ghastly daughter Posy and her even more appalling Nanny also decide to stay with William. And William's sister Margery (Hilary's mother-in-law) decides that it's the ideal time to bring a friend to visit, someone who is interested in old houses and might be able to suggest ways of having it renovated.

Probably the most interesting person in the book is Frances, the new nanny to four-year-old Tobias. Hilary is the only other woman who seems both believable and likeable; the others are one-dimensional caricatures.

Having said all that, 'A Proper Family Christmas' is not meant to be taken seriously. The novel is something of a family farce, with misunderstandings, complications, and intense family rivalry, each section of the family quite certain that they are the most appropriate ones to inherit when William finally passes on. I didn't particularly like the writing style, which was rapid, switching viewpoints constantly, and interspersing thoughts and conversations with little explanation.

Still, it's not a bad book. I found I got more interested in the various relationships as it progressed. The family gathering in a mansion, and one-dimensional characters reminded me a bit of some of Agatha Christie's books - so much so that I half expected someone to be murdered. I was relieved when everything turned out much as I expected it to towards the end.

I found it pleasant enough - if a little tiring - for a very light read over the holiday season. I do slightly wonder if I was missing something (or if I should have read it when I wasn't so tired in the first place) since the Amazon reviews are so startlingly positive.

Perhaps I'll read it again in a few years, and see if I like it better.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 3rd January 2009

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