Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau: A WWII Love Triangle

I really like the cover of this paperback -- it's Table Devant Une Fenetre
(Table Under a Window) by Henri Le Sidaner.
I really cannot resist going into a used bookstore -- for the past few years I've been really disappointed by most of the newer fiction and I always find myself much more satisfied with backlist titles, especially from the mid-century. It's always really nice to scan the shelves at a used bookstore and see a green-spined Virago Modern Classic, which I would normally snatch up immediately. A few years ago I was lucky and found quite a pile of VMCs at John King Books in Detroit, and one of my finds was The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau.

Published in 1949, this is the story of a young actress named Caroline Seward and her love affair with a surgeon, Michael Knowle, from the late 1930s until after the war. Caroline has a promising future on the stage until she meets Michael, who is separated from his wife Mercedes, an artist and set designer. Caroline struggles whether to give up her career and devote her life to Michael, and the complicated relationship between Michael and Mercedes casts a shadow over their relationship, before and during the war.

I mostly liked this book though it did take some time to get into it. I thought it was going to have a lot more about Caroline's theater career, but it's really mostly about her relationship with Michael with some sub-plots about the peripheral characters, like Caroline's childhood friend June; Vera, Mercedes' former secretary who becomes obsessed with finding her former employer during the war; and the Aynsteys, American friends of Michael and Mercedes who eventually tie all the characters together. I liked all the secondary characters and thought they were really well drawn. 

The book is divided into three sections: before, during, and after the war. I think the best section by far was set during the war, when Michael is working as a military surgeon and Caroline has signed up to do her bit. I'm really fascinated by how WWII affected people still in England, much more than battle scenes and that sort of thing. I also really like that this book was written pretty close to the end of the war -- it must have been very fresh in Frankau's mind and as much as I love historical fiction, I think it would be really difficult to recreate it if you haven't experienced it.

I also think the writing in The Willow Cabin was really good. Just after I finished it I started reading a novel for my upcoming book discussion group, a fairly recent historical novel about three women in WWII. I couldn't even get through the first 50 pages because I think it was utter crap, the writing was really weak and the characters so poorly developed I put the book aside in disgust. 

Anyway, here's a bit I found really poignant and insightful: 

He could see nothing ahead for any of them, the tight little circle of temporarily-favoured persons to whom all this was important. "It is the last spring; the guillotine is coming down. And after that it won't matter who loves and who is unloved; we are for the dark." How foolish not to be happy now, when there was so little time left. (p.75)

It's short, but I really feel like it captures the essence of what people must have been feeling when it was so obvious another massive war was inevitable. 

There were several plot twists in this book that I wasn't expecting, but unfortunately the VMC edition has a massive spoiler for a big plot element in the description on the back. (If you're interested in reading this, I would advise against reading the back cover and the desciption on Goodreads). My least favorite part of the book was the aftermath of the war, when the setting shifts to America. I don't want to go into any more detail for fear of spoiling it for anyone else. 

Overall I really did like this and I've heard other good things about Frankau's novels. Apparently she was quite a prolific novelist and published more than 30 works from the end of the 1920s until her death in 1967. A Wreath for the Enemy is her best-known novel and is also a Virago Modern Classic. I'll definitely look for it after I've made some more progress on the TBR shelves. 

This is my sixth book this year for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018 -- I'm halfway through my list!


  1. I read this one back in January 2017 so not that long ago. Although I enjoyed it I could hardly remember anything about it and even looking at my own post on it hasn't jogged my memory much, so it hasn't stayed with me at all. It's weird how that happens and other books live with you forever.

    1. I liked it but I don't know how memorable it will be a year from now! It's funny how some books can be utterly forgettable.

  2. Your comments are so interesting. I love Pamela Frankau and agree her writing style can be very beautiful, with some sections that can be really moving even taken of context. Even though this is one of her most famous works, to me it is not among my favorites. One of my favorites is the Clothes of a King’s Son Trilogy, especially Sing for Your Supper. She writes well about the time period around WWII.


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