Fans of Downton Abbey will undoubtedly enjoy this well-written story of a wealthy young Viennese Jewish girl, Elise, who, in 1938, applies to be a parlor maid in England in order to escape the oncoming Nazi occupation.
She gets the job, but is hampered by her poor English and her struggle with adjusting to her new station in life, below stairs. Of course, there is the master's handsome and charming son, Kit, on hand to play out a romance, but the crux of the story is how the safe world of the manor home, the aristocracy, and domestic servants is rapidly changing with the oncoming war.
Author Solomons lyrically captures the atmospheric beauty of coastal Dorset and the manor home; she presents a cast of well-drawn memorable characters whose lives intertwine with dramatic events such as the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain. Throughout the story, Elise is desperate to get her parents out of Nazi-occupied Austria, and she clings to the one tangible thing she has from her father, a viola in which he has secreted one of his novels. Life on the British homefront is vividly portrayed, where even the wealthy on the manor played their part for England.
The last part of the book advances the story to the present in an unexpected plot twist, going back full circle to the Vienna Elise left so many years before. Interestingly, the author based this story on an actual estate in England that was requisitioned by the military during World War II. A notice pinned to the church door by departing villagers says it all:
"Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly." - Christmas Eve, 1941
"Tears and a journey" is a line from the book that conveys the essence of what happened in the hearts of so many people whose lives were changed forever by the tides of war and in whose story Natasha Solomons tells so well.
Recommended by Betsy Schroeder