A few years ago I picked up an Erica James book in a charity shop. Cannot remember which one it was now but I remember taking it home, sitting down to read it and not moving until the last page. Thank goodness these days I can do that. Since then I have read through nearly all her titles and she gets better and better. Her last novel, Summer at the Lake, was another which had me pinned to my chair until finished.
The Dandelion Years is another excellently written book, readable and gripping. It is also set in Suffolk and places named in the story are locations I know well which always helps to set the scene. Saskia lives in Ashcombe with her father and her two grandfathers. She is now thirty two and lost her mother and both grandmothers in a car crash as a small girl. United in grief those left behind set up home together to recreate a family and to help each other recover. Saskia has grown up aloof and careful to guard herself from falling in love and running the risk of losing another loved one. Her family think she should be expanding her horizons but she remains unconvinced.
"It was the most beautiful house she had ever seen, a rambling Suffolk Pink cottage on the edge of the village of Melbury Green, flanked by open fields and the River Stour to the rear of the two acre garden.......with its immaculate thatched roof and ornate ridge, its sloping pink walls covered with climbing roses and an orchard filled with apple, pear and damson trees, it was fairytale perfect. From the day they moved in, the house beguiled them and became their sanctuary, an enchanting and secluded oasis in which, very slowly the healing process could begin"
One of the pleasures of The Dandelion Years is that Saskia is a book restorer and her father is a bookseller and both are immersed in the love of books. Called one day to value a library of Professor Jacob Belinsky who had recently died, they meet Matthew who has inherited the house and all its contents and it is while searching through an old family bible that Saskia discovers that the centre has been cut out and a hand written notebook is hidden inside. At first she is not sure she should be reading what is a private diary but the first few pages draw her in and we discover that the writer is telling the story of his youth, an outsider, awkward and ungainly with few social graces, but the owner of a probing mind and intellect.
World War II has started and we find the writer at Bletchley Park working in the decoding hut. One day on the train after a visit home he meets Kitty, full of life and joy and confidence and charm, the total opposite of Jacob (by now we know it is him) and gradually, unable to believe that somebody like her could be interested in a misfit like him, they fall in love. He knows that as a Russian Jew from the East End and Kitty, daughter of an upper crust county family, their love for one another will not be greeted with joy and so it proves after a disastrous visit to meet Kitty's family.
When Matthew reads the notebooks he is astonished at the revelation that Jacob, his mentor and teacher, had felt so awkward and unloved and full of doubt, character traits that he has himself and he is even more amazed that Jacob spent the war years at Bletchley as, along with all of those stationed there, he kept silent all his life.
The love story of Kitty and Jacob has parallels with the growing attraction between Matthew and Saskia, both starting slowly and in awkwardness and gradually blossoming as time goes by. I do love stories that have two timelines running through the narrative and the switching backwards and forwards to the past and the present.
I have said it before, as you well know, and will say it again, that I feel writers such as Erica James are under valued by the litterati. You will not see their names on the Booker List or up for prestigious awards as their books will not be reviewed by the Guardianistas and their ilk who would turn their noses up if a copy of The Dandelion Years landed on their desk. They would dismiss it as chicklit or, worse, 'a woman's book' though what that genre is I have yet to have clarified. They are missing a treat.
Erica is a good, very good, writer. Her characters are well drawn and entirely believable and we feel sympathy and interest for and in them and are wonderfully readable. Once I discovered her I read all her books, as I do, in one binge and am now left waiting patiently each year for the next one.
Loved the Dandelion Years and I am sure you will too.
Note: Erica James will be appearing at the Felixstowe Book Festival this year, full details of which will be available soon, so do keep an eye out for the update on the website.