This is a novel I picked up by chance, though I’ve read and enjoyed Tracy Chevalier‘s work before. Not too long ago, I was in the bargain basement of Harvard Book Store with my friend Jamel, looking for my book group’s most recent pick. I thought (mistakenly, I should add) that Zorba the Greek would be an easy find, but instead I happened upon Falling Angels. I wasn’t overly impressed with the cover art but still I idly flipped to the first page; after reading a few paragraphs, I knew that I would be immediately have to climb the stairs and make my way to the cash register. I needed to know how the story would end, particularly after a beginning like this:
I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed. The head of blond hair beside my was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.
Well, I thought, here’s a novel way to begin the new century.
Then I remembered the evening before and felt rather sick. I wondered where Richard was in this huge house and how we were meant to swap back. Everyone else here — the man beside me included — was far more experienced in the mechanics of these matters than I. Than we. Much as Richard bluffed last night, he was just as much in the dark as me, though he was more keen. Much more keen. It made me wonder.
Do you understand what I mean? How captivating, how scandalous, how thrilling — especially when put into context. Falling Angels is set in Edwardian London (1901-1910), an era also known as the Belle Époque, a time for the European elite to explore all things beautiful and new.
The novel’s plot encircles an array of characters all bond together by birth, position, politics and desire. Chevalier tackles these themes by telling the story through a succession of first-person narratives. The perspectives range from beautiful and bored Kitty Coleman, who opens the novel with her incendiary words; her maid Jenny, whose bad judgement and insolence the plot hinges upon; snooty and smug Lavinia Waterhouse, obsessed with propriety at even a young age; and cheeky Simon Field, a grave digger’s son.
While Falling Angels is gripping as a piece of literature, it is Chevalier’s skillful characterizations that is so very seductive. She effortlessly moves from individual to individual, telling each one’s tales in a voice that is as distinct and clear as her own. And that is an covetable gift.