It's books like Katharine McMahon's The Woman in the Picture that spoils things for all the other books that come after. I think I can fairly confidently say that this will easily be one of my (if not the) favorite books of the year. Much like The Crimson Rooms that I reread earlier this year, it has all the right elements combined in just the right way for this to be a pitch perfect read. I was so happy to revisit Evelyn Gifford, and if her 'ending' last time around was not exactly a 'happily ever after' it was entirely satisfying for me. Actually anything different would have felt forced and not true to the nature of Evie's character. While the previous story was mostly resolved, there was still much more to say Evelyn and Meredith's world and about their lives. The Woman in the Picture, however, is mostly Evelyn's story.
If you are curious about where it really begins, you can read my post here first. Now, it is 1926, just a few years after the events that took place in The Crimson Rooms. While Evelyn is more of a seasoned lawyer, she still struggles against prejudices and false perceptions that British society and her male counterparts (the whole male establishment really) have against females practicing the law. A little challenge never defeats Evelyn, but her personal life is another matter. It's more of an upheaval and mixed in with her courtroom adventures, this story makes for a rather thrilling read.
This is the year of the General Strike, so imagine that as the backdrop. Evelyn is left reeling after a romantic misadventure with a fellow lawyer. I have to say I sort of admire a woman, ca. 1924, who knowingly goes into a relationship with a man she is on the cusp of being in love with, takes what she knows she wants before having to let it go and fall to pieces, yet be all the stronger despite (or maybe for) it.
This refers to her affair with Nicholas Thorne, a golden boy of the law, equally charming in looks as in personality. A man who knows perfectly how to balance what he wants in court and what he needs to do to get it, and still come out smelling like a rose. Is it a mistake he seems to take such an interest in Evelyn? Maybe at first the interest was with an end in mind, but his admiration for her was real. It's only a pity that Evelyn catches him out on his initial intentions and that is that. She has just enough scruples to draw the line. So when they part in anger, and he sends her a letter, she burns it without opening it. Cast to the flames she too late has second thoughts, but now consigns it all to the fire and moves on. Nicholas has just enough shame to leave London, and so now we are ready for the next act in Evelyn's life.
If it is a time of massive upheaval and change in British history, then Evelyn's personal life reflects it, too. During the war years the Gifford household was made up entirely of women and after the war, her deceased brother's lover and their son show up on the doorstep. The Gifford household is a stifling one, with a mother far too often in a fit of vapors and an aunt who is a little too proper. Meredith's bohemian ways throws them all for a loop, but really it's the best thing for them. Just when Evelyn's life seems to be calm and her work moving forward, Meredith decides it's time to pursue her painting in France taking her son with her. One change in the Gifford household seems to portend a general disbanding of what family is left, and Evelyn's mother assumes she'll return home and be a 'proper daughter' and do her duty.
It's all these questions--these duties and expectations but also hopes and desires that make this such a rich and nicely complex read. Evelyn takes on two difficult court cases, one with repercussions on and fallout from the General Strike and the other a sticky domestic case where there can really be no winners. She was lucky enough that her boss, Daniel Breen, was renegade enough to take on a female lawyer, but then he is drawn to cases where he favors the underdog. And now he finds himself attracted to his protegé, and Evelyn admires and respects him in turn-more than enough to seriously consider his offer of marriage. What better team could there be, one based on mutual respect and attraction. But always at the back of Evie's mind niggles that unopened and destroyed letter. She would happily have it back now to know what it said and regrets her hasty action. So when Nicholas steps back into their lives, is it a second chance or an awful distraction?
This is such a great read and I've had to go back and edit this post so as not to get too bogged down in detail, but there is really so much to say about Katharine McMahon's characters and if that's not enough on its own, there is her superlative storytelling abilities, which has made me collect all her books and eagerly plan to read my way through them all. I won't tell you how this ends, but the promise of the last novel is more than fulfilled in this one. I could happily pick up the book, turn to the first page and start reading it all over again, and who knows, maybe I just will later this year. While I have changed gears temporarily with Deborah Moggach it won't be long (and maybe that sooner rather than later moment has actually already arrived) before I settle into another of her marvelous stories.