Book Review: The Forgotten Cottage
Every genre has its tropes, and historical fiction is rife with them. Some of the more popular ones include inheriting heretofore unknown property, the elderly relative who dies with a secret, a modern-day protagonist with a burden, and of course, world war. But just because a book includes some or all of these tropes doesn’t mean it’s not good. Historical fiction writer Courtney Ellis utilizes all of them in her latest novel, The Forgotten Cottage. She still creates a unique, captivating story that never feels predictable.
In 2014, disgraced American nurse Audrey Collins treks to North Yorkshire, England, having just inherited a cottage from her grandmother that she knew nothing about. So devastated over her grandmother’s passing that she fell off the wagon after a year of sobriety, Audrey is amazed to discover the cottage is a time capsule from the day her grandmother left England in 1941. As she pokes around the home and talks to the villagers in this tight-knit community, Audrey begins to realize that the secret to her grandmother’s past actually lies in the story of her great-grandmother, Lady Emilie Dawes.
The Forgotten Cottage suffers from the same quandary as nearly every historical fiction novel that features a past and present protagonist: The challenges the historical protagonist faces are so enormous that the modern-day heroine pales in comparison. And Lady Emilie Dawes is exceptionally compelling. Growing up on a fine estate with staff at her beck and call, and promised to a lord, Emilie is determined to live life on her own terms. And that means falling for a man born outside of society and rejecting her family in order to serve World War I soldiers as a nurse. The contrast in descriptions of Emilie’s privileged life on the manor versus the austere life in a field hospital is stark, and her strength of character is revealed again and again. Near the end of the book, when she makes a calculated decision to lie to protect someone vulnerable, her actions are understandable. Audrey’s journey of getting the cottage ready to sell, discover her grandmother’s past, and stay sober, can’t really compete with that, even though she is a sympathetic character.
The novel feels strongly researched, and many of the descriptions of the horrors of World War I made me tear up. The first conflict to use modern warfare and gas, it was fought by English nobility and commoners alike, who signed up believing it would only last a few months. Through Emilie’s eyes, readers get an up-close look at the amputations, chemical burns, and PTSD that resulted—as well as the unkind reactions to the latter.
Ironically, I read The Forgotten Cottage on the plane home from a trip to England. While there, I visited the Imperial War Museum, which has a floor dedicated to World War I. As an American, it was eye-opening to read analyses of the war written by English historians who put the conflict in a global context. World War I happened more than 100 years ago, but the struggles of class and the questions about who gets to rule never really seem to get resolved. Perhaps that’s why these books continue to be so compelling: There’s always the unspoken suggestion that something similar could happen again. And here.
Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.