Synopsis taken from Goodreads
Born into extreme poverty in the London slums, young Gladys Tunner strives to survive her circumstances, including her alcoholic parents. Desperation and dreams for a better life are constant. Her childhood best friend and protector, Toughie, looks after her until she’s forced to escape into the English countryside, creating an elaborate masquerade that leads to both love and heartbreak.
Under a new identity, Gladys finds work at an inn, first as a housemaid, then later as a barmaid. She gains a dear friend and, eventually, two well-off suitors to choose from. Once married, Gladys enjoys a life of privilege she’d only dared to dream of. But shortly after the birth of her daughter, disaster strikes when Gladys learns that her beloved husband has been killed. With his death, Gladys begins to rely on her new family, but misfortune continues to plague her. Can she survive the capricious hand of fate with her masquerade intact, or will she die as she began, a pauper in the worst of London’s slums?
This rich and compelling novel is a story of true love and longing, both for a new future and the memories of the past. You’ll hope the best for Gladys, no matter which path she takes.
I requested and received this book as an electronic ARC from Edelweiss and couple of months ago because I have really been enjoying historical fiction and this story looked interesting.Now, I have given this book a pretty low rating and that’s not because the writing itself was bad, though I did find that there were some syntax errors in my e-ARC edition that I’m hoping were fixed before the final print. I liked the initial ideas that were happening, I got a bit of a Maggie: a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane vibe at the start, but the rest of the story fell flat for me about half way through. I went into reading this book with no knowledge about the author and after reading the bio that was at the end of the eBook, I got a better idea of why I thought the book felt more like a history lesson than a novel. Betty Annand has written primarily non-fiction history books and this was her first novel. I have experienced a situation like this before with Legacy of Kings by Eleanor Herman. A novel benefits from historical detail, no doubt, but I felt like the deep detail that took a page or more (hard to judge since I was reading this on a phone screen) took away from the narrative of the characters.
I’ll expand more on my thoughts in the rest of this post, but there will be spoilers in case you haven’t read and want to read this novel. If that is the case, I suggest you stop reading here 🙂
My Rating: 2 stars
Gladys stuck me as a really intriguing young girl, born into the slums with drunks for parents, but she knew how to take care of herself. I felt like I could believe that she would survive if she ran away from home. But even early on, it seemed like things happened to Gladys to conveniently. At first, I was happy for her because she had found her kindly neighbor Sally that was trying to help her become a more educated and motivated young girl. Then, when Gladys ran away I was totally fine with her stumbling upon a man who ran an inn and needed a housemaid. Whatever. From there is seemed Gladys was struggling to fit in, until she found a kind woman who took her in as a friend and wanted only the best for young Gladys. Are we sensing a theme yet? Everyone loves Gladys, no matter what hardship you think she’s going to face, there’s never actually that long of a struggle. So, naturally, Gladys finds herself a handsome and wealthy man to marry while working as a barmaid for the inn and he wants to marry her as soon as possible because he’s in the military and will be going to India soon. Fine. Good for Gladys.
The midpoint of the book was where I really lost interest in the ease of Gladys’ life. Tom just dies. Along with the other man, Tom’s best friend Keith who was also in love with Gladys #LoveTriangleInAnAdultNovelNoThanks. But after Tom dies, Gladys’ mourning period is totally glossed over. It’s stated that she’s a bad mom when she first has Dolly because she’s struggling without the husband she thought was coming back for her, but I felt like this point of the novel showed me that Gladys is very selfish. That’s a trait I wouldn’t expecter her to have because she came from the slums. She should be able to survive anything, and that’s not to say she can’t feel sorry for herself. Gladys was more disappointed that she would no longer be moving to India than she was that her husband and close friend Keith has been killed in the line of duty. I have nothing against Dolly, she was a child with little so say or do until the last quarter of the book or so. I did think she could have been written better though. She seemed both wise and naive at the same time and that contradiction of traits was present in many characters in this novel. I guess that’s part of what I disliked, there was a lack of consistency in this story as far as character traits are concerned. Obviously the characters should change and evolve, especially since this book takes place over the span of at least 25 years.
There were so many events in the last third of the book that I, personally (fight me on this if you want), thought could have just not been in the book. Once again, I appreciated the detail that went into the scenes where Andrew took Gladys and Dolly to the Crystal Palace in London and all the details about the poverty in Ireland. HOWEVER, the last half of the book was not centered around Gladys aka “The Girl From Old Nichol” and that was my overall problem with this book. I thought the first half was on a great track, but the second half was focused mainly on what Andrew was doing, and how he started to have romantic feelings for his daughter-in-law. There was some stuff about Gladys with Millie before she was killed off, I even liked that moment where Gladys thought she was killing Millie and regressing, it showed some character depth because she knew she was doing something wrong that connected to her past. Another issue I had was that Gladys threw away her past. That bugged me mostly because she started refusing to admit to herself that it was a part of her. To me, that was a lack of character development. Gladys was so set on becoming this lady who was accepted by society but she didn’t understand that her past could have made her into if it was written well enough. I really didn’t think the second half of this book was well thought out mostly because it lacked a central character or overall point. The whole novel ends with Andrew being murdered in cold blood before he could sign the will that gave Gladys his estate. So basically Gladys is out on her own with Dolly and all Gladys cares about is that her true identity was never revealed. And the last sentence really made me cringe: “At the same time, she knew fate had been kind to her in the past and she was sure it would be kind to her again.” This literally just brushed aside the fact that Gladys’ life actually sucked. AND it was more convenient stuff hapenning to her. I don’t believe that any of the good fortune Gladys was handed in her life would really have been so easy for someone in the 1800s. Overall, I felt like the novel could have been edited down and more focused on Gladys’ story.
So those ae my thoughts, let me know if you liked The Girl From Old Nichol let me know in the comments!