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by Robert Barnard
Scribner, April 2003
281 pages
ISBN: 0743236882

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Caroline Frawley is not only the Mistress of Alderley, she is the mistress of supermarket mogul Marius Fleetwood, who has installed her in an elegant country house near Leeds. Caroline has happily given up her moderately successful theatrical career to devote herself full-time to her teen-aged children Stella and Alexander, to the gardens, and, of course to pleasing Marius, with whom she is much in love. He, in turn, visits on the weekends and assures her that his marriage (oh, yes, he is of course married) is one in name only. As the novel opens, the only flaw in this otherwise idyllic scene appears to be the reluctance on the part of the vicar and certain villagers to accept her irregular status.

If all of this, like the title, seems hopelessly out-of-date, the effect is intentional. Nothing is as it seems. The very name of the manor house, Alderley, is bogus and so is Fleetwood's name and his relationship with Caroline. The truth rapidly emerges after his corpse is discovered, he having been dispatched during the opera debut of Caroline's elder daughter, Olivia, a splendid soprano with the sexual enthusiasms of an alley cat. Two Leeds detectives, Mike Oddy and the wryly ironic Charley Peace, investigate.

Barnard writes well about music, especially about the experience of listening. Here the opera in which Olivia is making her debut, La Forza del Destino, is not only integral to the complex and ingenious plot but is also evoked in all its glory. Barnard also writes very well about sex--not the details, but the obsessions, the fixations, and the little perversities that lurk beneath the apparently decorous surface of middle-class life. This is a clever and witty novel, one in which rather more is going on than might appear at first glance. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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