Circles of Time by Phillip Rock
Summary from the publisher:
A generation has been lost on the Western Front. The dead have been buried, a harsh peace forged, and the howl of shells replaced by the wail of saxophones as the Jazz Age begins. But ghosts linger—that long-ago golden summer of 1914 tugging at the memory of Martin Rilke and his British cousins, the Grevilles.
From the countess to the chauffeur, the inhabitants of Abingdon Pryory seek to forget the past and adjust their lives to a new era in which old values, social codes, and sexual mores have been irretrievably swept away. Martin Rilke throws himself into reporting, discovering unsettling political currents, as Fenton Wood-Lacy faces exile in faraway army outposts. Back at Abingdon, Charles Greville shows signs of recovery from shell shock and Alexandra is caught up in an unlikely romance. Circles of Time captures the age as these strongly drawn characters experience it, unfolding against England’s most gracious manor house, the steamy nightclubs of London’s Soho, and the despair of Germany caught in the nightmare of anarchy and inflation. Lives are renewed, new loves found, and a future of peace and happiness is glimpsed—for the moment.
I hadn’t heard of Phillip Rock or the Abingdon trilogy until a read along was announced at Book Club Girl. I had so much fun participating in the Bess Crawford read along and I was intrigued by all the comparisons between the Abingdon trilogy and Downton, so I signed up immediately.
I pretty much inhaled the first book in the series, The Passing Bells. It felt like Downton had come alive on the page, and I loved meeting the Greville family and the characters below stairs. I also enjoyed seeing the English aristocracy through the eyes of a somewhat impartial observer: the Greville’s American cousin, Martin Rilke, who ultimately becomes the narrator as World War I breaks out and the comfortable world of Abingdon is turned upside down. And I thought Rock gave a really great sense of where the war took each character, and the consequences of each journey. The only reservation I had was that some of the relationships were rushed, but with so many characters and the war and two more books coming, I was willing to let it slide.
Circles of Time picks up in the Roaring 20s, and people are trying desperately hard to move on from the war, even as another is brewing across the Channel. Much like on Downton, the Greville parents are trying to return to pre-war standards but are finding the world and their children too changed for such a thing to be possible. Thankfully, instead of behaving like Lord Grantham, Anthony Greville tries his best to adapt to the situation and accept the paths his children have chosen, while his wife has a much more difficult time accepting certain things, most notably Alexandra’s “unlikely romance.”
At the same time, Martin Rilke makes it over to Germany in time to witness the nascent days of the Nazi party and the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. As with The Passing Bells, he gives an outsider’s perspective of the tensions bubbling under the surface in a Germany that’s being squeezed by reparation payments, but also a perspective that’s slightly affected by familial proximity, as one of his German Rilke relatives happens to be a major supporter of the fledgling Nazi party. Martin is horrified by his cousin’s politics, but, as the cousin keeps saying, it’s impossible for Martin to understand. The book leaves off on an uncertain note that is very reflective of the time.
It was nice to continue the Greville’s story, but I felt that Circles of Time lacked the character development and conflict that made The Passing Bells so interesting. It felt like everything moved a little too fast and that the story lines were a little too pat, and, again, there were certain relationships and plot lines that began but ultimately fizzled out with little explanation. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Circles of Time — I did! I loved getting better insight into Willie, the youngest Greville, and I was so happy to see Charles come out of his shell shock, which was one of the events from the first book that really affected me. And Alex’s romance was enjoyable, and very reminiscent of Downton. I also thought Rock did a great job of conveying a sense of place, particularly the underground clubs in London’s SoHo, where flappers and bright young things danced and drank the night away, and the scenes in Germany.
The third book in the trilogy, A Future Arrived, is out today. I can’t wait to read it and find out what World War II has in store for the Grevilles.