Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Review: A Surrey State of Affairs

By Kathryn Hamilton

Constance Harding (please don’t call her Connie) is a 53-year-old “Home Counties” housewife living in Surrey, England. She is part of the upper crust (think Upper East Side in New York) and spends her time, when she isn’t meddling in people’s lives, as part of her church bell ringing ensemble, as well as volunteering with Church Flowers. With encouragement from her son Rupert (in perhaps an attempt to divert his mother’s attention to things other than his private life), Constance begins a blog detailing the daily happenings in her life, including her frustrations with Rupert (25), daughter Sophie (18), and husband Jeffrey. Over the course of the year that readers follow Constance, her world gets shaken up and she learns that life is full of surprises.

Ceri Radford, Assistant Comment Editor for The Telegraph in the UK, first brought the character of Constance Harding to life in a fictional blog in 2008, where she pretended to be Constance. As a result of strong reader response, as well as developing an affinity for fiction, Ms. Radford turned the blog into the full-fledged novel that is now “A Surrey State of Affairs.” It is certainly one of the most creative and unique ways of bringing a novel to fruition. It is completely written in a blog style and follows Constance throughout one, rather tumultuous at times, year in her life. As a character, I found it difficult to relate to Constance and was actually not very fond of her in the beginning. She came across as pretentious and very hoity-toity, too concerned with what is “proper” (which apparently involves men wearing cufflinks). However, aware that this may perhaps stem from a personal bias, I kept an open mind and continued reading. I was rewarded for my persistence, as Constance eventually grew on me. As a side note, I would never last in high society because expectations and rules of conduct would drive me insane, which may be why I enjoyed Sophie, who also seems to shirk the nuances of high class society. If I had to describe Constance in one word, it would most definitely be: clueless. The reader is guaranteed to know pivotal information way before she does due to her uncanny ability to not see what is going on in front of her. At times, it is almost sad how oblivious she is to the things going on. In many ways though, it is this same naivety that makes her endearing and charming. Despite first impressions of Constance, I did find that her strongest redeeming quality is that she honestly wants the best for those around her and loves her family very much, although her attempts at meddling often backfire in humourous ways. I do wish that there had been more of Rupert and Sophie, as these were the characters I was most fond of.

As a whole, I enjoyed the story but am unsure about the use of the “blog” as a storytelling device. I cannot pinpoint exactly what it was about the format that didn’t feel comfortable to me; it may simply be that I’m just more traditional. My only other point of query is the realism that a woman who comes from a background with aristocratic ties would actually write a blog for strangers to read. It didn’t seem to jive with my perception of Constance, although, that perception, of course, may not be the same as the author’s.

Ms. Radford originally created Constance as a satirical commentary on current events, but has managed to turn the character into a more fully developed traditional woman finding her way through the modern world. This is definitely worth your time so pick it up at your nearest bookstore (virtual or otherwise)!

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