The Vicar's Wife
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code
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host of expectations that today may seem outdated, it is Alice's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.