Alys, Always
Harriet Lane
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Buy *Alys, Always* by Harriet Laneonline

Alys, Always
Harriet Lane
Scribner
Hardcover
224 pages
June 2012
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Lane writes in a quintessentially British style as her main character, Francis Thorpe, works as a struggling copywriter. Telling her tale from the perspective of one who understands her heroine’s deepest secrets, Lane imbues Francis with a keen sense of how people operate, an attribute that holds her in good stead as she descends into the privileged world of popular British novelist Laurence Kyte. Like the unnamed narrator in du Maurier’s Rebecca, Alys, Always centers on fear, suspicion, and shaky love as progressive Francis suddenly awakens to the very real possibility, that yes, she can indeed cross the class divide.

Brought up in a very middle-class existence, Francis is a bit overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Kyte family residence. Everything about their lovely Biddenbrooke house and its garden stands as a constant reminder of Alys “Alice” Kyte, the women Francis spoke to just moments after her tragic car accident. Francis remembers the dark wood, the rain, and Alys’s terrible crying. Telling her sister Hester about the accident, she recalls the scene of chaos, the oddly formal nature of her conversation with Alice, and how in the end she felt so terribly alone. With her life on hold, Francis walks the snowy streets of central London, a city that still works its disruptive and glamorous magic.

Under a pewter sky, ice-glazed Parliament Hill forms a dramatic backdrop to Francis's narrative filled with thoughts and ramblings of an astute, incredibly aware girl whose motivations eventually reach drastic proportions. When Francis learns that Kate Wiggins has been assigned to the family of Alice Kyte “to help them through this very painful time,” she’s initially hesitant to get involved. Yet Francis is an opportunist at heart. Sensing Lawrence Kyte’s vulnerability, she feels a strange tremor of excitement at his authority, his grief and his “prickly panic of helplessness.” Maneuvering herself into position, she sets her sights on the children: impersonal Edward and nineteen-year-old Polly, who is enthusiastically off to drama college. Even though Francis finds their air of entitlement and absolutely impermeable confidence irritating, she finds herself swept up by the sheer force of Polly’s personality.

Because Francis narrates the whole story from her point of view, everything is shepherded through her eyes and ears, her reliability flowing organically off the pages. Not only is she sympathetic, she's also witty, charming, and delightfully and completely original. Lured by “inky corridors of shade” to the “scented clouds of lilac blossom,” Francis jumps at the invitation to stay at Biddenbrooke. Everything about the house that Alys used to run stands as a constant reminder to her tragic death. Even the apple orchard and Alys's lovely back garden brings painful memories back to Lawrence, Polly and Edward.

Biddenbrooke sinks into darkness in the orange glow of the sunset, and Polly's tea lights wink like beacons that seem to stretch on forever. In Francis, passion seems as repressed as open communication even when sexuality is not far beneath the surface. The friendship between her and Lawrence is full of erotic overtones. As the new family confidante who gives out sensible advice, Francis demonstrates that perception can be quite different from reality. Part of Francis’s talent is that she’s so “good at fitting in." After she tells a calculated lie involving Alys’s final words, she becomes even more indispensable, taking full advantage of this family still coming to terms with what has happened.

As the pages turn, we--as thoroughly entertained readers--are privy to Francis’s dramatic transformation, and Lane’s gorgeous prose compels us to revel in Francis’ deceptions. Francis at first appears to have plenty to offer: “I understand people--their ambitions, desires, their fears and their weaknesses,” a darkly humorous statement in the context of a story that soon resembles a tale of riddles, shrouded in droll, dramatic irony.



Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2012

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