May, 1914. Nestled in Sussex, the Summerhayes mansion seems the perfect country idyll. But with a long-running feud in the Summers family and tensions in Europe deepening, Summerhayes’ peaceful days are numbered.
For Elizabeth Summer, the lazy quiet of her home has become stifling. A chance meeting with Aiden Kellaway, an architect’s assistant, offers the secret promise of escape. But to secure her family’s future, Elizabeth must marry well. A man of trade falls far from her father’s uncompromising standards.
As the sweltering heat of 1914 builds to a storm, Elizabeth faces a choice between family loyalty and an uncertain future with the man she loves.
One thing is definite: this summer will change everything.
Merryn Allingham is a new author for me to begin my 2017 reading although looking on Amazon it seems she has already written a trilogy based around the life of a young girl called Daisy. This book The ButtonmMaker's Daughter is based in Sussex during the hot summer of 1914 just before the outbreak of World War One. The Summer's family live on the estate, Summerhayes, that patriarch Joshua has spent many years building to his exact specifications in order to see his dreams for house and gardens become a reality. Now the gardens are finally nearing completion with the building of a lake with an accompanying Italian garden and temple which will compliment the already stunning gardens and vegetables patches and greenhouses. One would think this is a family ideal and life is perfect and all the residents live in peace and harmony. But that is not the case in any sense of the word.
Joshua is a character who had times can show his softer side and offer brief glimpses of compassion yet for the majority of the novel I viewed him as a distasteful character who was never happy with his lot and who had a fierce temper which left his family and those near him often frightened and bewildered. The sole focus of this book is not based on Joshua but rather on his family members and how they are coping with a season of unrest and change both on the wider world scale events and on a personal level. It seems there is someone out to seek revenge and air their malice and resentment at every given opportunity. The restful Summer and indeed life some family members may have desired will not come to pass.
Alice is married to Joshua and we soon discover this is not a marriage of love but rather one of convenience as her true love could never come to pass as her family needed someone with money who could make the estate profitable. Joshua being a business man and owning a successful button factory fitted that criteria and Alice had to let her own true feelings become deeply buried. It is her two children Elizabeth aged 19 and William aged 14 who are her true loves. Yet Alice is bound by her husbands rules and must stand by him and think of the bigger picture. God how I hate that women at the time couldn't be who they wanted to be instead they were heavily bound by rules, regulations and expectations.
Even Elizabeth felt this in more ways than one. She loved the estate and all it had to offer and she really wanted to indulge in her passion for painting but Joshua had marriage plans for her and he wanted them fulfilled. Despite a season in London she had refused two offers so her father was taking things into his own hands even if that meant renewed contact with his brother in law Henry Fitzroy who lives at Amberley the neighbouring estate. He was a spiteful, malicious, evil character who I detested and I couldn't say much better about his wife Louisa. Revenge was at all times in the upper most of his mind and the ways in which we think he exacts it were cruel beyond belief and hit those innocent characters where it hurt the most and at their most vulnerable points. The connections between the Summerhayes' and the Fitzroy's were confusing at first as the background to everything had to be established but around the half way point it all started to make sense and an interesting story began to unfold even at times I didn't like what was happening.
When Elizabeth encounters architects assistant Aiden Kellaway in the gardens she realises this is a man she wants to get to know better. He is Irish and not from the class her parents would wish for but one must listen to what one's heart is saying. Throughout the summer stolen moments are grabbed at every opportunity and William and Oliver ( a Jewish school mate of Williams staying for the summer) pass notes between the pair and help in the collusion. But as I have mentioned Joshua has bigger plans for Elizabeth and she needs to be married off and here Henry again comes into play but I really just wished he had been kept out of everything as he had a more sinister plan up his sleeve for reasons that become clear nearer to the end of the book. My heart broke for Elizabeth at everything that unfolded and the position she was put in.I thought her mother could have been more loyal and understanding but when we read of her own personal situation and what society and family demanded it make more sense although I didn't necessarily agree with it at all.
I had thought the Buttonmaker's Daughter would be a story all about how one family cope with the terrors of World War One but it was very different kind of read. Although it may not have been what I expected it to be, the more I read and understood the tone and plot lines of the book the more I came to really enjoy the story. For the first half I did have mixed feelings as to whether this was a truly good read. I had found it until the half way point to be only OK but then things got going and I understood what direction the author was taking her characters in and I became engrossed in the story and was keen to discover how everything could resolve itself considering so much time had been put into setting everything up. The story focuses more on the summer months leading up to the declaration of war. It provides the reader with a detailed, fascinating insight into the dynamics of a family who on the outside seem to have it all but dig that little bit deeper and it's obvious there are various things ongoing with each character. Some of which are out in the open and other strands which are best kept secret to those in the know. For to be revealed would cause untold trouble and upset which would best be avoided at all costs.
The relationships between the characters are many and complex and I have to say I preferred Elizabeth and the younger characters who seemed more open and honest and more aware of the changing times and their personal situations and feelings. They appeared more down to earth and more willing to embrace change in all its forms and to go against society's conventions and the expectations and demands of their parents. All the characters are being forced to adapt and conform to the rules and regulations of society and their rank and position within this field. But I loved the rebel in Elizabeth who constantly attempts at any given opportunity to break out and stand up for herself and go against the wishes and more so demands of others. She was a young woman who would defy the rigours demanded of her in order to pursue her own personal happiness and ambition. As for William's storyline, initially I questioned was he too young? But then the further everything subtly played out and aptly developed the more I reconsidered my opinion and would praise the author for the inclusion of this storyline when at the time it would be quite a taboo.
There were a few lulls in the book in particular in the first half when I found things very slow to get going. The descriptions of the setting and time and place were all fabulous but there was an overwhelming feeling of a lull or a sluggishness and I suppose it was the calm before the storm in all senses of the word. The second half was far stronger than the first and made me realise all the setting up was more than worth it. I just hoped everything would work out the way I wanted it too. The ending to this story left the reader with lots of unanswered questions, there were lots of loose ends to major plot lines that weren't tied up instead they only created bigger knots within the wider scheme of things. This would normally prove very frustrating for me but I am surprised to say it really has set us up nicely for the sequel coming in August, The Secret of Summerhayes. In fact I see great potential here for a longer series with the possibility of further characters being introduced with new settings to be explored.
My earlier misgivings about the slow going of the book were all forgotten as I realised all the setting up and finer detail needed to be there to develop both the characters and the various sub-plots accompanying the main over riding storyline. The latter half of the book proved exciting as things started to bear fruition and the reader is left wondering with only a few pages to go how can everything be neatly tied up but this wasn't to be the case and I am glad we will read more of these characters and their lives against the back drop of WW1 this Summer when the next book will be published. Overall I enjoyed this book and it was a different historical fiction read from what I am used to or expected and I think fans of this genre will enjoy it too. Meanwhile I am looking forward to reading more from Merryn Allingham in 2017.
Many thanks to Alice Geary from Midas PR for my copy of the The Buttonmaker's Daughter to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.