Friday, July 1, 2022

Elizabeth Cadell - The Toy Sword

Edmund Forth, a wealthy architect, was already engaged to the beautiful and efficient Angela, but in Portugal he meets a penniless young girl who runs a boarding house in London. Fran Nash is devoted to her young brother and sister and her eccentric and talented boarders and she, it is, who teaches him that efficiency is not enough, that people are all important.

Comment: I've added this book to my TBR several years ago after positive reviews on it somewhere and, even more so, after I saw part of the plot would take place in Portugal. I always feel curious about how my country is portrayed in fictional books written by people from other nationalities, and I finally got tho this one.

When this story begins, we follow protagonist Edward as he leaves England to visit his inherited propriety in the south of Portugal. He has loved the estate from the start and travels once or twice a year when possible, but this time, while driving from Lisbon where he collects some business information to the estate, on the other side of the country, in hot Alentejo, he stops to aid  a couple of kids who seem to have traveled in a car which broke down. After some confusion he learns they are traveling with an elderly friend and their older sister but the car can't be fixed on time, so Edwards asks them to stay at the estate until the work is done. The days go as in a dream and while Edward feels put out at first, he can't help but enjoy the children's fascination with how life is so quiet there. He also feels curiosity over Fran, the older sister whom he thought younger but is actually 24. His life takes a turn when they leave, though, especially when things in England seem to have gone crazy... will Edward find a solution to his several problems? Will he find Fran again?

This book was published originally in 1962, the year my mother was born. It can be quite an experience, to think about the passage of time in relation to personal situations... this means the writing style is clearly dated, for I don't consider this to yet be an "historical". But the writing does seem to reflect the thoughts and behaviors of that time, although, to be fair, are they that different form the current ones? Perhaps now people disguise things more...

The story is sort of divided into two parts, although graphically no division exists. There is a part of the plot set in Portugal, where the main characters meet and start creating an idea of one another, and there is the other part set in England, where everyone lives and where most of the decisive plot happens too. 

I obviously loved the Portugal section, especially since it's clear the author knows her geography (I think I've read she lived here for a while) and what fun it was to recognize names in the region of Alentejo, where I happen to live as well..Some of the scenes in Edward's estate remind me of my own fond memories, well not in an estate, but in my grandparent's house, where summer and innocence seemed to be eternal...

Despite my enjoyment of this section, the more important moments of the story happen while the characters are in England. Edward is an architect and his work is there, as well as his fiance. Before Edward left, this woman, who we figure is someone independent and well established in life, has contacts and deals with the so-called polite society, made him agree to a certain decision, which by chance, isn't what happens. This means, Edward arrives and has several problems to deal with, but following the trend of what I came to expect from romance stories from the 60s, most things are more inferred and alluded, and not really seen on the page. We must connect dots to reach a conclusion, for the characters don't always explain.

This also means it can be difficult to sympathize with the characters, these stories don't seem to be focused on characterization but on what a character represents, so while we root for the protagonists, I still feel I didn't really got to know them that well. Their actions are often impulsive and odd to be accepted sometimes, so there's this sense of weirdness in the air, as if these people could never be real, although evidence from the time could prove otherwise. People just thought differently.

I think some situations were just not that interesting for me. Since some details were only shared at the end, it feels they didn't have to matter that much anyway. The interesting part would be to see how the characters would all deal with Edwards' new friends, how their personalities and character would confirm them as good/likable people and how that would affect the decisions as story moved along. I think there's a lot to be said about what kind of opinion we are supposed to have on others, based on their behavior and while this can be a little unfair at times, it did offer a good reading and, of course, we are supposed to already know who would be the best people for Edwards to be friends with.

The romance was very.... understated, as one would expect. Besides the traditional aspects and dynamics (older hero, younger heroine), what i think was the best between these two is precisely that they are different people, but Fran, despite her age, is considerably clever and intuitive. Perhaps impulsive, but with a strong moral code, so of course, a good lesson to present to readers at the time too.

It might take a certain frame of mind to appreciate this novel, but I think it had enough elements to convince me of its attributes. Some scenes are very well done and for that alone, I'll remember this for the plot itself, perhaps it won't be as pronounced.
Grade: 7/10

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