Iona Grey’s The Glittering Hour wrenched my heart, squeezed it, and wrung it out to dry. This is a very sad book, a hopeful one, but nevertheless, sad. At the same time, despite work deadlines, it kept me in its grip and I stayed up to finish it into the early morning, something I do rarely these days. If you love Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White, and our very own Canuck, Clarissa Harwood, you’re going to love Grey’s novel, as long as you’re willing to forego their more-often-than-not HEAs.
The novel opens, as the best novels do, with a naked sleeping couple in 1926. We don’t know who they are, yet we sense love and desperation. Selina Lennox, aristocratic bright young thing, darling of the then-tabloids, lover of cocktails, jazz, and wild, nocturnal shenanigans. And Lawrence Weston, dark, handsome, talented, an artist and photographer, of humble means, lowly origins, cultured, urbane, working-class. Lovers. Tragic lovers, we sense. Fast forward to 1936 and the narrative shifts to Alice Carew, eleven-year-old daughter to Selina née Lennox and Rupert Carew, presently living with her maternal grandmama and grandpapa in the Lennox family estate, Blackwood Park, of former grandeur and still the site of much of the Lennoxes’ cool snobbery.
The novel then proceeds on alternating narratives lines of 1926 and 1936. In 1936, Alice is staying with her grandparents while Selina travels to then-Burma with Rupert to assist in his ruby-mine business. Selina’s letters to Alice comfort the lonely little girl. They set up a game for her: Selina’s letter plant clues to be found in the manor that will tell Alice the story of “how you came to be”. As Alice puts the clues together, the reader does too – by following the dual-decade-narrative to its heart-breaking conclusion. As for 1926 Selina: bright young things careening nightly on London’s streets, one careless collision with a stray cat … and Selina is an entire other world when she abandons her friends to rescue the cat and encounters a handsome young artist. The cat provides a wonderful frame to the novel, as it concludes with another feline, a kitten for Alice. I haven’t spoiled too much here and everything that happens between one cat and the next is rich in narrative complexity and a profound call to “live properly. Bravely. Love wholly.”
(For those who love a romance connection, Iona Grey was “India Grey”, supreme HP author. If you haven’t read her HPs, do! I loved them and hope she’ll return to an HEA-driven novel some day.)
The power of Grey’s Glittering Hour lies in how much I cared for her central characters. I was in agony for their happiness. In particular, I was moved by wee Alice: quiet, thoughtful, and so very lonely; her grandparents, cold and lacking in affection; her Aunt Miranda and Uncle Lionel, indifferent, even resentful; her spoiled, peevish cousin, the five-year-old Archie ruins every scene he’s in. Alice draws, wanders the garden, misses her mother. Selina’s love and connection show through in her letters and the clues she plants for Alice to find who she is, explore Blackwood, engage her soul and mind and achieve respite from missing her mother. Thankfully, Grey provided Alice with some faithful, loving servants to make up for what her family, minus her mother, lacks: Polly, the faithful servant who is the fulcrum upon which the novel’s mystery is built and resolved; Patterson, the gardener, who shares both with the youthful Selina and later Alice, a love of how the natural world succors and provides important lessons about life, death, and regeneration, how to tend it and how to enjoy it. While much of Glittering Hour had me sobbing, where Alice ended up gave me much-needed satisfaction.
Now we come to the lovers, Selina and Lawrence. Grey builds them on collective sorrow, shared by English between-wars society. Selina’s wild young thing life hides a deep sorrow, despair even, and an inability to confront it, over the death of her beloved brother Howard at Passchendaele. As for Lawrence, braver than Selina, a man who was too young to go to war, but suffered the loss of his sister and mother to the 1918 Spanish ‘Flu, and grieves them still. In each other (and there is a stupendous scene at a costume party where they reconnect after the initial “cat” encounter that involves van Gogh’s Starry Night painted on Lawrence’s bare chest), they find a searing attraction, a kindred spirit, a deep-seated connection beyond appearances and class.
Lawrence loves deeply and lives bravely; Selina is more fragile, but her strength, gained by hard-earned loss, shines through in the end. I don’t want to give away anything of the novel, but I will say that there is resolution for Lawrence and Selina and much hope and love for Alice. My romance wishes for Lawrence and Selina didn’t come through and for that, I forgive Grey. In its place, a beautiful book, like the “glittering hour” itself, a time and place when life shines with hope and love (though it cannot “stand still,” like Marvell wrote, Lawrence and Selina make him “run”) and though the betrayal that is inevitable in every romance does not find resolution in an HEA, the narrative arcs towards hope, a kitten, and the happiness of a little girl. With Miss Austen, in Grey’s The Glittering Hour, we find “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Iona Grey’s The Glittering Hour is published by Thomas Dunne Books. It was released on in December 2019 and may be found at preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Thomas Dunne Books, via Netgalley.