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Two vicarage lives

28 November 2014

Rachel Harden on the tale that unfolds from a found shopping list

The Vicar's Wife
Katharine Swartz
Lion £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT292 )

THE VICAR'S WIFE, by Katharine Swartz, is a novel that attempts to bridge the gap between life in an old Cumbrian vicarage (sold by the diocese to a transatlantic family wanting to move to the UK), and life as it was in the vicarage in the run-up to, and during, the Second World War.

The book centres on two women, and the chapters move between their stories: Jane, a New Yorker and new resident of the old vicarage, together with her three children and British husband; and Alice James, the vicar's wife, who lived there decades before.

Their stories are intertwined as Jane - deeply frustrated at leaving her fast-paced New York life of juggling career and family - finds a shopping list as she clears the larder, and decides to find out more about former vicarage residents. Her quest is interwoven with the strains of family life in a new alien environment: difficult mother-in-law, house with no heating, lack of job, and children not all enjoying their new schools.

Alice is introduced in 1930s Cambridge, where she keeps house for her father, a theology tutor at the university. Her mother had died years before, and she had left school with no clear direction. As her relationship unfolds with one of her father's students, the reader gets a clear view of '30s romance - no emails, texts, or Skype. The love affair by letters culminates in Alice's moving to the Cumbrian vicarage when she marries.

The book is well written, and, although it has certain chick-lit tendencies (the author is a contemporary-romance writer for Mills & Boon Modern), it has an ability to draw the reader into the lives of both women. Alice's struggles with childbirth, the war, and living through rationing are well researched, and are perhaps the more interesting parts of the book.

Jane's tale is rather predictable: she doesn't fit (but by the end does); she wants to return to New York (but by the end doesn't); and so on. But, equally, there is a certain em- pathy in the description of her struggles as an outsider with life across the Atlantic, where there is no Subway, fast food on the doorstep, or Central Park, and where people have lived for generations. The description of dropping her youngest at primary school on the first day will resonate with many parents.

This is no classic novel, but is definitely worth a read. Although the life of a 1930/'40s vicar's wife has to contend with a host of expectations that today may seem outdated, it is Alice's story that gives the book a little je ne sais quoi, and takes it out of the chick-lit realm.

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