Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Abdication by Juliet Nicolson

What do you say when you have high hopes for a juicy steak full of flavor and discover it has been replaced with soy protein? That is how I felt about Juliet Nicolson's foray into fiction . . . blah without occasional bursts of meat.

That is not to say that there isn't a story here among the ramblings and character sketches that are less than sketches. The moments between Wallis and the Prince of Wales are perfect right down to the smallest details of how Wallis briefly touched the Prince's hand to get him to stop smoking at the table. It was a telling moment and one that defined a lot of the relationship between Wallis and Edward VIII.The rest of the book is about two other women, a bald, fat American who was Wallis's fictional school friend and supposedly privy to the intimate details of life with the soon to be abdicated king, and May, from Barbados with an almost incestuous past with her lecherous father, who becomes the chauffeur and private secretary of Sir Phillip Blunt.

While the moments of May's and Evangeline's lives would be important to characterization, they added nothing to the main focus of the story, the death of George V and the rise and abdication of King Edward VIII. The peripheral details of life in the Jewish quarter of London and Evangeline's corpulence and alopecia could add much to the characterization of both women and texture to their relationship to the central characters (Wallis and Edward), but they do little more than add pages and very little cogent information

That is not to say the writing isn't good because it is beautifully written prose, but where Nicolson excels as an historian she stumbles as an author of fiction. It is a case of where she shines, she really shines, and where she doesn't, she . . . just doesn't. I would venture to say the fictional elements of this highly touted novel are pointless, adding nothing to the overall story, of which there is very little, or to the understanding of Evangeline and May's importance to the story, especially when both characters could have provided a nuanced and important fly-on-the-wall perspective of this most scandalous and romantic moment in Britain's 20th century royal history.

I would recommend Juliet Nicolson's historical writing but caution against expecting too much of this well written but often unfocused novel. Read it closely for the historical moments but skim the rest and you will not end up wondering why someone as devoted to her dog as Evangeline Nettlefold ostensibly was passed off May backing over her beloved pet with the Rolls Royce with little more than an "oh, well," moment, and how a young woman newly arrived from Barbados would be hired as a chauffeur and private secretary by someone with as much political clout as Sir Phillip Blunt with no references and no real training. Some things, at least in the world of Juliet Nicolson's Abdication, are not meant to be understood, merely accepted.

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