Summary from the publisher:
It’s the spring of 1938 and no longer safe to be a Jew in Vienna. Nineteen-year-old Elise Landau is forced to leave her glittering life of parties and champagne to become a parlor maid in England. She arrives at Tyneford, the great house on the bay, where servants polish silver and serve drinks on the lawn. But war is coming, and the world is changing. When the master of Tyneford’s young son, Kit, returns home, he and Elise strike up an unlikely friendship that will transform Tyneford-and Elise-forever.
I first heard about The House at Tyneford when various publishers started making “If you like Downton Abbey, you’ll like…” lists (here’s the one that made The New York Times, although Tyneford isn’t on it). Like most people, I am obsessed with Downton and, really, anything that addresses the relationship between upstairs and downstairs in grand old English estates, especially when things started breaking down in the early 20th century. The fact that Elise was a Jewish refugee made the book even more appealing.
Ms. Solomons paints a vivid picture of Tyneford House, but things become even more real when you have a strong frame of reference. It was easy to conjure the big house that slowly became more run down as the men left for war and upkeep became more difficult, as well as the frenetic activity of the servants’ hall below stairs. With these visuals in my mind’s eye, I tumbled straight into the world of Elise and the Rivers family.
Elise herself is an interesting heroine. I was fully prepared to hate her at the beginning—she seemed immature and empty headed and almost content to be so. Of course, as she reflects somewhere in the middle of the book, if she’d been allowed to stay in Vienna and go on as she was, she would never grow beyond the girl we met in the first few pages. Instead, she undergoes a journey of love and loss that is alternately traumatic, happy, and sad, and she emerges a transformed and much more likeable character. I sympathized for her as she tried to find her place in a house where she was neither servant nor gentry and as she tried to adapt in a land that was so different from her home, and I truly felt her pain as she desperately tried to learn news of her parents and sister during the war, when they were scattered all over the world.
Elise is supported by an incredible cast of characters, from the villagers who play hooky from church on the first day of trout season, to the elder Mr. Rivers and his reckless son Kit, to Mr. Wrexham who, with his pride in adherence to the old ways, reminded me of Mr. Carson. They enrich life at Tyneford and make the difficult moments easier to bear.
Parts of the plot are a little predictable, particularly where the various romances are concerned, but I enjoyed everything else about the book so much that I was willing to overlook it. Overall, The House at Tyneford is a transporting historical tale that will definitely keep you satisfied until you can get your next fix of Lady Mary and Matthew.