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The Opposite of Falling: Jennie Rooney Windsor Paragon 2010 (Large Print Edition)

I had to push myself to continue reading this, whereas I have devoured several books that have been much more poorly written. This is a book I admired more than liked. I admired the writing, the research that had taken place and the care in choosing details to bring 1862-1872 (roughly) to life. There’s an acuity about character, but I found Part I a drudge, partly because the book is so well-observed and three of the strands are quite miserable. However, that might be more others’ cup of tea and speak to my situation when reading it.

I would also say that the blurb gives too much away, so when reading the book itself, I knew that certain characters would come together and certain things would happen that did not happen until the second half.

There are three main characters: Ursula Bridgewater, a tea merchant’s daughter and an adult at the start of the book; Sally Walker, who is orphaned as a child and sent to a Catholic orphanage, the morbid atmosphere of which makes her close as many of her feelings off as possible; and then Toby O’Hara, the son of an inventor, who loses his mother young and grows up under a misapprehension. Ursula, her brother George, Sally and her mother’s former boss, who keeps a benevolent eye upon her over the years, live in Liverpool, while the O’Haras live in the United States. Toby’s mother is somewhat disappointed by the way her life turned out and has poured most of her love towards Toby; her well-meaning but obsessed-by-flying husband does not come to understand her until too late. Meanwhile, Sally is oppressed by Sister Thomas of the Holy Ghost, an unthinkingly cruel and petty nun who helps to bring her up.

Ursula’s story offers a little contrast. Frustrated by a childhood where she couldn’t do certain things like get an education because she was a girl, she was rejected by her fiancé as a young woman. Well-off and supported by an affectionate but bemused brother, she hates the limited conversations she must have with other women who look down at her in their social circle. She wants more, which is what leads her to travel, first to Wales, then the Continent and then, after many years, to America – behaviour that her horrified brother is sure will never get her a husband. Determined and increasingly unconventional, Ursula is a driving force, and one is glad when she finally takes on seventeen-year-old Sally as a companion/maid on a trip to the USA, where they meet Toby, who is passionate about imparting air sense to people, where Sally faces her fears and Ursula comes to realise that she has become comfortable in her own skin.

These characters are brought to vivid life, they are very much products of their time – Ursula’s travels are conducted alongside the real Thomas Cook, and in a book so concerned with the idea of flying, what it must have been like before the Wright brothers succeeded, an unnatural nightmare for some, while the source of passion for others comes through strikingly. It doesn’t shy away from the complicated or difficult, but it didn’t connect with me. At times I was thinking ‘Get on with it’ even as I thought something was well expressed or thought-provoking. I suppose it’s a literary historical novel, certainly suitable for older children/young adult and adult readers, about ideas to do with faith, love and identity. However, I suspect that if I’d read it in my teens, my response would have been the same, with the lack of some shared experience to temper my reaction to the adult characters, particularly the female ones.

There’s an odd little shock when the writer moves on to the Niagra of the late 2000s, acknowledging the perspective of the story instead of pretending it’s a neutral telling for one passage.

While my reaction, based on this review, might seem negative, it was a well-written book that might appeal more to others.

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