Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

With The Little Stranger, I've not only read another book for the RIP Challenge, I've also finally completed another owned-and-unread book from the TBR shelf.  I bought The Little Stranger at a library sale not long after I finished (and loved) Fingersmith, so I've been looking forward to reading it.  But like my last RIP book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Set just a couple of years after the end of World War II, The Little Stranger is an atmospheric story told in the first person by a British country doctor, John Faraday.  He grew in the shadow of Hundreds, a grand country house owned by the local gentry family, the Ayreses.  Though his mother was in service and his father a shopkeeper, Dr. Faraday was able to rise above his station through hard work and his parents' sacrifices.  He's not the Ayreses' regular doctor, but one day he's called out there as a substitute, to check on a young maid who's ailing.

The maid seems to be shamming, but confesses to Dr. Faraday that she's unhappy in the big house, which gives her the creeps.  He dismisses her fears -- the house is nearly empty nowadays, with only a full-time housekeeper; Mrs. Ayres, a widow; her daughter Caroline, who is in her twenties and unmarried; and her son and heir Roderick, who was a pilot in the war and was badly wounded and burned in a crash.

The Ayres family has fallen on hard times, and are barely able to keep the estate afloat.  With the pretext of helping Roderick with an experimental medical treatment, Dr. Faraday begins visiting the Ayreses on a regular basis.  He becomes a close family friend and confidant and is present when a terrible thing happens, the first of many odd occurences.

Three of Sarah Waters' novels are neo-Victorian, but this is her second foray into another historical era -- post-WWII Britain, which I thought she did extremely well.  Of course I'm no expert, but the past year or so I've been reading a lot more fiction written and published in that era, and the mood was very similar.  Waters does an excellent job evoking the period, but what I think was best about the book was her description of an aristocratic family fallen on hard times, and their struggle to keep their lifestyle afloat.  They're desperately hanging on to another era -- they can't keep the farm going, can't maintain the property, and can barely find servants to help them around the house.  It's a real contrast to the books I've been reading recently in which great houses have scores of servants and most women had few other job choices than to be a maid, cook, or governess.

The supernatural aspect of the book is not the best part, in my opinion, and I was a little disappointed in the ending, which didn't quite satisfy me.  But the book is so well written, I read it pretty quickly over a couple of days. I didn't like it quite as much as Fingersmith, but it was well worth reading.   One of my librarian friends is coordinating a historical fiction book group, and the December read is one of Waters' other books, Affinity, so I'm hoping to get to it in a couple of months.  This one is set in a Victorian asylum and also has supernatural elements -- as my friend Jason commented, "Nothing says Christmas like Victorian madhouses!"

18 comments:

  1. I had a very similar reaction to this book. After Fingersmith, I keep hoping that she'll write something that will be so completely and crushingly awesome as that book...and it hasn't happened, yet. At least, not for me.

    But! She's a terrific writer, and I thought this book was solid and good--both in terms of how it was plotted, the attention to history, and the prose.

    I liked it a lot. I just didn't love it. And I really, really want to love a Sarah Waters novel, you know?

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  2. Since reading Fingersmith, I haven't been able to bring myself to read any of her other books. I just really hated Fingersmith so much... :(

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  3. I agree this was well written, but I was bored with it. I think my issue was that her books are usually pretty mesmerizing, with quite a few twists and turns, so this was too slow for me. I liked Tipping the Velvet and Affinity much more, along with Fingersmith!

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  4. I liked the supernatural element in The Little Stranger and its aura of mystique. It is my favorite Waters novel after Fingersmith, but Affinity is awesome as well. I think you'll enjoy it!

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  5. I thought this was a really spooky book, but then I'm very easily spooked.

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  6. I agree with you about the ending. I was expecting a more engrossing and compelling book. I think it was far too long.

    This is the only Sarah Waters book I've read, but I will try another.

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  7. I like the line from your friend on "Nothing says Christmas like Victorian madhouses." :) I have Affinity on my Nook and a looking forward to reading it soon. It will be my first Sarah Waters read, and I'll be trying Fingersmith shortly after.

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  8. Tom -- I feel exactly the same way, after Fingersmith! And have you read anything besides Fingersmith and The Little Stranger?

    Amanda -- well, there's no criminals in this one, but i know the English gentry are not your thing, so this might not be the one for you either. I'll have to let you know about Affinity. Or you might like Tipping the Velvet, but I haven't read it yet.

    Reviews by Lola -- I was going to read one of those next! I've heard the BBC adaptation of Tipping the Velvet is also good.

    Anbolyn -- I'm also looking forward to The Night Watch, since I love WWII era novels -- it's my other favorite historical period after the Victorian era.

    Joanne -- it was pretty spooky, but not sleep-with-the-lights-on spooky for me. But a great big house like that would definitely creep me out.

    Joan -- Yeah, I was a bit disappointed with the ending. I wish I'd read it with a book group so I could discuss it with someone and figure out what the heck it meant!

    Natalie -- Jason always cracks me up. I had to borrow that line! If he's going to that book group meeting, I'll be there. He's a hoot.

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  9. I think also this book promised a lot but did not deliver it. I was bored expecting much more but did not get it. Over-hype perhaps? I did not find myself spooked by it all, though I think says more about me than the book and the writing. I have only read The Night Watch which I loved and have Fingersmith on my shelf to read at some point.

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  10. I liked the ending, but I can understand why some people didn't. Overall I couldn't love this book the way I did her earlier novels, but I loved that she did something different and something less obvious.

    Affinity was the first Sara Waters I read. I loved it, and I am sure you will too.

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  11. I thought The Little Stranger was not Sarah Waters' best. I loved the idea of having the supernatural stuff, but yeah! I wanted it to happen in a better way. I wanted it to be creepier than it was.

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  12. Jo -- I also want to read The Night Watch so I'm glad you liked it. WW2 is one of my favorite periods to read about.

    FleurFisher -- I think I just didn't understand the ending. If it was more definite, I think I would have liked it better.

    Jenny -- I think there was a lot of good creepy stuff, but the payoff was disappointing. It felt unresolved.

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  13. I re-read this book recently for bookclub, and I still think I preferred it to Fingersmith, even though I loved Fingersmith. I found it pretty creepy, and the ending was in keeping with the book, I thought.

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  14. I'm one of the few who counts this as their favorite Sarah Waters (and Fingersmith is probably my least favorite). Oh well! I'm glad that she writes such a variety so that there's something for everyone.

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  15. I was disappointed in the ending too - I think I needed something a little less.... elusive. I like to have and ending at the end of my books (and movies for that matter), I don't usually like to be left guessing. Sometimes a good book can leave you guessing but you are so convinced that you know the conclusion it barely matters (Turn of the Screw comes to mind), but this book really needed a more satisfying ending.

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  16. I love your friend Jason's comment! Brilliant!

    I have read this one and also Affinity (but none of her others yet). I really enjoyed TLS but agree that the ending was unsatisfying.

    Also, I have received my book today! Thank you so, so much. Can't wait to read it in the next few months (I've already had a flick through and love the writing so far).

    I have a recommendation for you too - have you read East Lynne by Ellen Wood? It's one of my favourite books and if you enjoyed Lady Audley and like Victorian madness you may just love this too :)

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  17. I see a trend...am I wrong, but it looks like people who loved Fingersmith disliked this one (or at least liked it a lot less), whereas people who loved this one disliked Fingersmith (or liked it a lot less)?

    I'm in the latter group and nearly with Amanda on it, since I disliked Fingersmith so much I never wanted to touch another Sarah Waters book again. I don't know why I picked this one up (charity shop?) but I'm ever so glad I did. But this also means the author is batting .500 for me: loved The Little Stranger, but hated Fingersmith; any other book of hers is suspect in my eyes.

    That said, though, I also loved the ending of this one. I like the subtlety of it, and stayed awake thinking of it long after I'd finished reading. One complaint (and praise) that I've seen over the oft-reviewed-for-this-RIP The Woman in Black is that it's a just ghost story - no less, no more, there's no ambiguity about that one. But to me I prefer the more subtle, the open for interpretation, the less-is-more.

    In any case, great review. Thanks for making me think about this book - and others - all over again!

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  18. I was so amazed by Fingersmith that I bought this book without any hesitations. I have to say I was also a bit disappointed - especially the ending was a bit "off" and it took quite some time to really get into reading. All those characters may have been well-written, but I couldn´t feel sorry for them /or feel any emotion when I think about it. But some parts of the book gave me those nice chills you feel when you read some "mysterious" stories. All in all, it was a good read, but I probably won´t read it again :)

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