I'm sorry I've forgotten who it was that recommended Michelle Cooper's A Brief History of Montmaray to me, but if you happen to read this--thank you. It was one of those books on my reading pile that got shuffled around a bit recently. I started reading and then got distracted. But when I picked it up once again with enough time to devote to it properly I found I couldn't set it down until I finished. The first of a trilogy, it's a YA novel with a quirky but appealing cast of characters and once it gets going a charming story, which I suspect will only improve in the next book. I think initially the draw for me was the comparison of this story to one of my favorites, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. It's also written in diary format, so it fits in nicely with my ongoing diary project.
While I don't think any book can surpass the fondness and appreciation I have for Dodie Smith's novel, A Brief History of Montmaray is an entertaining and absorbing story in its own right. There are certainly many superficial similarities between the stories--a crumbling castle, a bohemian family, a coming of age story and a dash of romance (at least the anticipation of romance), but I think Cooper gives her story a slightly different twist and I'm looking forward to following the adventures of the FitzOsborne family.
Montmaray is a tiny fictional island kingdom with a long and distinguished history located in the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain. A once thriving community it has fallen onto hard times. After so many of the Montmaray men were killed on the battlefields of WWI, not only is a generation wiped out but many of those left behind have abandoned the island for England. After such ignominious losses during the war, King John, who led the men there, has gone quietly mad and keeps to his rooms most the time. His descent into madness no doubt was helped along when his wife left him and the island never to be heard from again.
It might be optimistic to say that the royal family lives in genteel poverty. The castle, really more of a grand manor house, is literally crumbling and most of the nicer furnishings have been sold off. The royal family doesn't feel all that royal really, since it is the youthful princesses Veronica and her orphaned cousins Sophie and Henry who care for the estate. Toby, heir to the crown, is off in England being educated leaving behind only a housekeeper to look after the family.
Veronica, King John's only child, is intelligent and driven and dedicated to the family and island. She's writing a history of Montmaray and can't imagine living anywhere else. Being female she can't inherit the crown, so it will pass along to her cousin Toby even though she has the intellect and moxie to lead the country. Sixteen-year-old Sophie dreams of going to London for for her coming out Season, but can't convince Veronica of the need to socialize. Even the promise of good libraries where she can do proper research isn't enough to tempt her to go with Sophie. So she spends her time writing her thoughts and hopes in her diary while tomboy Henry runs wild.
It's 1936 and while the girls hear the rumblings from Europe they still feel far from it all until one afternoon when a boat with two German officers arrives and brings the worries and tumult to their shores. The first third of the story is filled with bits of Montmaray history and politics, which Sophie, the narrator and observer, shares in her diary as she tries to sort through it all. But once things start to really move it's hard not to want to race to the end. As a matter of fact the story becomes quite exciting, and I don't think I am giving anything away by saying that how the girls must flee the island is all very edge-of-your seat action. Sophie will get her Season in London, though perhaps not in the way she had planned or expected.
The second book, The FitzOsbornes in Exile is now sitting on my bedside pile near the top and I'm itching to start reading. It promises to be an even better read as the young women navigate their way through London Society on the brink of war.