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Merryn Allingham – The Crystal Cage

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Time may change, but there will always be that person in a similar situation.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-460-33836-0
First Published: 1st August 2014
Date Reviewed: 14th October 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

Nick won’t give up, so Grace agrees – an otherwise usual day as a property historian/gallery assistant is changed when Grace accepts the energetic Nick’s proposal that they work together on his commission to discover whether a Victorian architect designed for the Great Exhibition. Grace’s life is ruled by her partner (bed and work) Oliver, and she’s done a good job of pretending she’s happy for nine years, but Nick’s offer, whilst overwhelming, piques her interest. Little is known of Lucas Royde’s career before he became famous, but that might just be about to change.

The Crystal Cage is a dual-plot novel that studies the art world and history but later takes a long look at the expectations people have of each other, especially those less well-off (in all ways), than themselves, to good effect.

None of the characters are likeable, however whether or not they are supposed to be is not obviously stated and so it would be fair to say that if you go into the book knowing that this is the case, you are likely to finish it more content than someone who goes in expecting happiness and romance. Be not ye fooled by the name of the publisher, there is little real romance here and, given the subjects, it is all the better for it.

Lucas, for example, is assuming and takes jealousy to an extreme level. A subtle, non-violent level, but one all the same. The man who is quite obviously in lust rather than love hates his rival from the word ‘go’ with scant reason and it can be hard to feel anything for him when he puts himself in such an awkward and socially unexceptionable position with little behind it that the reader can understand. His ‘romance’ is an interesting one, however, in part because of the way the author does not include any details from the point of view of the woman. Indeed the book would have been too long if she had been given a voice and so it may simply be that she was left out for no literary reason, so to speak, but nevertheless the effect is intriguing. You don’t hear a word from Alessia except through Lucas and therefore it is easy to believe that perhaps she is less in love with him than Lucas thinks, she is certainly more desperate and less powerful than Lucas can comprehend. Their story may be sad, and it may be true as much as the fiction can be, but what is left out ensures that there is a further link in the main social theme.

This theme is of control, the expectations I have stated above. Grace became Oliver’s partner in every sense of the word, but it was/is a case of what Oliver says, goes. He was the lifeline she needed – the security, the job, perhaps even the man in a sexual sense – as long as she was at his beck and call. It is somewhat a spoiler to say this, so you may want to move on to the next paragraph if you’d rather not know too much, but the theme continues somewhat with Nick. Bounding, get-up-and-go Nick, whom Grace likens to Tigger. Whereas Oliver’s persona may have been obvious from the start, at least it would have been if Grace had been less in need, Nick allows the author to show how control can come in different forms. Similarly Alessia is controlled by her reported love for Lucas, and by her husband. It’s interesting to compare the two situations because the contemporary version may hit harder, being closer to home than the Victorian period. But of course both are equally damning.

This all sounds very good, and it is, but this theme consumes the end rather than the main section of the book. The book is overwritten. It’s wordy, flowery, and rather repetitive, with ideas being repeated mere pages after they have already been stated. There is also an element of prolonged angst to it that can be difficult to read. The insistence by Lucas that he’s in love when the reader can see that it is pure lust makes the story difficult to continue.

Nick and Grace are rude. They literally run away from people who had made time for them as soon as they, Nick and Grace, realise the person doesn’t have much information for them. They are well-matched in their lack of tact and in their attitudes to others. Lucas is jealous, as said, hateful of too many, and assumes too much.

The mystery has many, many dead ends, and these are convenient, a way to keep the story going. After a couple of these occasions wherein a search looks promising but is then fruitless, it becomes too predictable and the meetings and searches boring. Then, later, this turns 180 degrees when ideas about Royde appear out of the blue with no ‘evidence’ (for Royde is fictional) behind them. Grace makes guesses that are correct, but they are too much of an assumption without the information the reader has been privy to.

Lastly there are a few names and places that invite confusion, and areas that, other than the filler content, could have used more editing.

Yet the history itself is appealing and there is enough factual information for the interested reader to jump from it into their own research. And the ending itself is highly appropriate and rather excellent. Allingham shows all the worries and backtracking of someone in a difficult situation but writes the ending that you could say is expected. She doesn’t make sweeping changes or include roses on doorsteps – she gives you the realistic truth and has her character remain strong. And she shows that backwards can often be a step forward.

Granted the history works best for the themes of control and independence and less so for the romance. It could be argued that the book would have been better without the Victorian romance, and certainly Grace’s story of discovery is more compelling, but the theme itself makes it all worth it in the end.

The Crystal Cage as a title is exactly what it seems to be, just as relationships often are not. It takes time and yes, effort, to get there, but the book is recommended.

I received this book for review from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

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Literary Feline

October 15, 2014, 6:25 pm

I am not a huge art fan, but I do enjoy art history. This sounds like an interesting book, even despite its flaws.

And thank you for the warning about the lack of romance–yes, Harlequin seems to be synonymous with romance all too often, doesn’t it?

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