Author: Michelle Cooper
Publisher & Release Date: Alfred A Knopf, 2009
The Hook: Confession time: “Montmaray” has been on my TBR shelves for four years. Every time I’d try to clear out some books, I’d read the jacket copy (see below) again and say, “I really need to read this.” And then recently I was tipped over via a reader’s advisory session. Thanks Seattle Public Library! (And all the other people who told me to read this – you were right.)
The Lowdown (from jacket): “Sophie FitzOsborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray, along with her tomboy younger sister Henry, her beautiful, intellectual cousin Veronica, and Veronica’s father, the completely mad King John.
“When Sophie receives a leather-bound journal for her sixteenth birthday, she decides to write about her day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. For Sophie, the politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island – until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. Then suddenly politics becomes very personal indeed.”
Overall Impressions: This is a gem of a novel. I’m mentally kicking myself a bit for not having read it sooner, but I’m mostly just delighted with the storytelling.
Sophie has a fantastic narrative voice – appropriately 16 and caught up in the idea of being presented in London, her crush on the housekeeper’s son, and the realities of everyday life. The 20th century has not been kind to the tiny kingdom of Montmaray, a rocky island halfway between Spain and England. World War I, the Spanish Influenza and the Great Depression have reduced the population to less than 10 when the story opens in 1936. The royal family raises chickens, has sold off most of its treasures, and tries to keep what’s left of the castle habitable.
I hesitate to call Sophie and Veronica (also fantastic) plucky, but they just… adapt to what needed doing. Not a great deal of complaining, just get it done as best as they can. Life proceeds apace, interrupted by arguments between Veronica and Simon when he visits, slowly building until the two Germans arrive. And then the story moves quite quickly. No longer are Sophie and Veronica reacting to news that trickles in – events are now happening to them, their home and family are in danger.
(The two men are essentially searching for a McGuffin, because the story is more about the chain of events that unfolds. As you can probably guess, many of these are not happy things.)
It’s a fascinating view of the build-up to World War II from a very physically isolated perspective.
The Highs: Did I already mention how charming Sophie is? She’s delightful and earnest and trying to figure herself out, and she’s there for family, even if it means crawling through dark tunnels that probably have rats while carrying out a horrible mission. Anything more I say would be spoilers.
The relationship between Sophie and Veronica and how they rely on each other.
How Cooper incorporated all the different feelings in the air in 1936 – all the passions and hopes and fears – while staying on the island until the very end.
Veronica and her fierce love of Montmaray.
Buzzkills: There was a really tense part, which of course I reached at the end of my lunch break and then I had to wait until the end of the work day. I spent the afternoon rather distracted. So try to pick a time when you won’t be interrupted reading the second half of the book.
The Source: Advance reading copy provided by publisher at a library conference.
Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor visits with royalty were provided in exchange for this review.
ETA to fix image link.