Winter Solstice (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

I have enjoyed every book I have read by Rosamunde Pilcher. She retired eighteen years ago, and since then I have re-read her books at least once, and am doing so again, interspersed with others. The time had come to read ‘Winter Solstice’, which I last read in 2004. It was Pilcher’s last novel, published in the year 2000 when she was 76. It feels like one of her long saga-type stories, although the action takes place over the period of just a few months.

Elfrida is the main character. She’s a delightfully quirky woman of 62. When I first read this book I thought of her as elderly, as indeed she describes herself, although she’s lively and active. As I approach that age myself, I feel slightly disturbed that she and others consider people in their sixties to be old. But it’s my only peeve above this wonderful book, which I loved both times I read it previously, and have just finished again.

Elfrida has retired to a small cottage in a Hampshire town. I will skate over the first chapters of the book, which set the scene of her life and local friendships. She then goes on holiday in Cornwall to stay with her favourite cousin and his family, and returns to devastating, shocking news.

A few weeks later, Elfrida and her friend Oscar set off for the North of Scotland, to a house which he half-owns. It’s mid-December and they have no plans to celebrate Christmas - they just need to get away. But Elfrida’s cousin-once-removed Carrie has returned to the UK after the devastating end to a love affair. Moreover, Carrie’s niece Lucy, who is fourteen, is feeling unwanted because her mother - Carrie’s sister - is flying to the United States for Christmas, to be with a man whom Lucy doesn’t much like.

Then there’s Sam, a businessman recently returned from the US, who is in charge of the take-over of a woollen mill and related company not far from Oscar’s house. And Sam happens to meet the other owner of the house in London, who has no idea that Oscar has moved there.

All of which sounds rather complicated, but Rosamunde Pilcher is very gifted at creating believable, likeable characters. They’re flawed - Elfrida doesn’t much care what anyone thinks, and is decidedly eccentric; Oscar tends to be moody and closes himself off from other people. Carrie gets irritated with her mother and sister, and Lucy is somewhat inclined to self-pity. There aren’t any ‘villains’ or even people with ulterior motives. The less likeable characters - such as Lucy’s family, and the other co-owner of the house - are self-centred and somewhat uncaring, but that’s the worst. They, too, are entirely recognisable and believable.

The main part of the story takes place over about a week preceding Christmas. There’s no real plot as such; it’s character-based, with many subplots which develop as the five main characters interact with each other, and with local folk whom they meet. There’s a flamboyant local lady who helps in the house, a teenage vicar’s son with a gold earring and dyed hair, a very Scottish doctor, an elderly and grumpy manager who looks after the keys… and so many more people who, with just a few strokes of Pilcher’s pen, started to feel like friends and acquaintances.

It’s not a book to read quickly. It’s divided into many short chapters, each preceded by the name of one of the main characters, following them and their actions in some way. This allows for five different viewpoints, without any awkwardness or confusion. There’s some description, but not too much. Some of the conversation is perhaps a tad stilted, but not unbelievable. Each person approaches life from a different perspective, and I liked them all. I was sorry to say goodbye to them at the end, although the future was hopeful, and I could imagine them all a few years down the line.

‘Winter Solstice’ is warm, and poignant. I had tears in my eyes towards the end, during one particularly moving scene. I was sorry to learn that Rosamunde Pilcher had retired, but this, in my view, is not just her last novel, but her very best. I hope it won’t be another fourteen years before I read it again.

Very highly recommended to anyone who enjoys warm, gentle, character-based women's fiction. It would make an ideal book for relaxing during the post-Christmas season, or for reading on holiday.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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