Author: Jane Riddell

Publisher: Thornberry Publishing, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-909734-02-9

Slow down, I kept telling myself during the first pages of this ultimately satisfying read. Just off a murder mystery, it took me a while to fully relax and enjoy Riddell’s polished prose and refined setting. The story cautiously unfolds, told through the viewpoints of a widow and her three daughters during a holiday at the mother’s hotel in Switzerland; it gradually expands, going from one to another, revealing their innermost thoughts about their personal problems and interwoven relationships. The brother is also present, but he and the other males in this family seem less inclined, even reluctant to either reflect on their lives or pursue “togetherness.”

Madalena is about to announce her plan to retire and marry her good friend Karl on the fortieth anniversary of the modestly elegant Hotel Zurbriggen. She hopes to turn over the business to one or more of her children. They have grown up in different directions: Annie, a chef, owns a café in England with another woman; Vienne is a concert pianist, and married; Portia is a London barrister, and divorced; and Lawrence is a journalist bachelor still seeking the right woman in Scotland. All have uncomfortable intimate relationships, though only Vienne has her partner on this trip, her husband Michael, an architect with a secret. Portia is part of that secret, and it affects her 13-year-old daughter, Lucy, who is at the reunion and behaving badly. During the few days together, the decisions each one of them faces trigger emotions rooted in past events, which build up hideous self-doubts and stir simmering regrets.

It is hard to say more without giving away both pleasant and unpleasant surprises, so I will comment only on the effectiveness of characterization, and the credibility of ruminations, especially those of Madalena. Perhaps because I am the mother of grown children I can share her anxieties and the tugs on her affections. She still is emotionally tied to her dead husband, who is a presence throughout the story, and she worries that Karl is going to change his mind because of her troublesome family. That the children all feel inadequate in spite of their accomplishments is something to give a mother pause. Portia is in fact a strong character because she recognizes her weaknesses. Annie and Vienne both recognize their strengths as days pass. Lawrence is the weakest sibling and does not quite resolve his situation as neatly as the women resolve theirs. This becomes understandable when he finally reveals the reason for his insecurity.

In spite of its complexities, the novel is compact. Meanings are clear. Words are not wasted. Riddell is kind to her characters, while dissecting their relatively sophisticated family life with objectivity and precision. An empathetic reader likely will bring to it additional pain or pleasure where it corresponds to personal experience.

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