Friday, 3 August 2012

Debutantes - Cora Harrison (#1)

I discovered Cora Harrison a couple of years ago when I picked up I was Jane Austen's Best Friend (review) after choosing it as 'the other book' in one of the classic Waterstone's 3 for 2 and found myself pleasantly surprised by the depth of knowledge on Jane Austen, the subtle parodies and hints of Austen's own novels and just the lovely simplistic writing that made it perfect for a summer read on holiday.
I also bought the sequel, Jane Austen Stole My Boyfriend (huge cringe at the title) which I am yet to read.

I had no idea that Cora Harrison, one of my favourite historical fiction writers, was releasing a new book until I saw this pop up on one of the blogs that I follow in their In My Mailbox etc.
Knowing this, I was so surprised to wander into my library, glance at the 'Teen' section and see this one a stand facing me. I picked this up without a hesitation to say the least.

Synopsis: The date is 1923 and London is the centre of jazz, parties, fashion and dance. Not that sisters Violet, Daisy, Poppy and Rose Derrington know as they find themselves stuck in crumbling house in the country in hand-me-down dresses without any heritage or money - they are desperate to be apart of this sparkling world for different reasons to pursue their dreams: Daisy wants to be a film director, Poppy aspires to be a jazz musician, Rose an author while their eldest sister, Violet, dreams of  being a Debutante and be presented at Buckingham Palace and meet the bachelor Prince George...
However, Daisy finds many of the hidden secrets of their estate which could ruin their future plans or everything together.

Review: The thing that gripped me from when I first heard about this novel is the fact it's set in the 1920's but not the conventional 1920's America - oh no - London, England. I get the sense from reading various books set in the 1920's and nearly ALWAYS in America, that people tend to forget that the jazz, sparkle and glitz associated with the 1920's didn't only happen in America. So America had speakeasies, Prohibition, gang culture. London was the fashion capital. It had the young men of the Royal Family. The BBC. Dancing. Technology. And Debutantes.
For those that are unfamiliar what a Debutante actually is, simply, a Debutante is a young lady normally from an aristocratic family that 'comes out' once they turn 18 in the hope of finding a husband. We have to remember the 'teenager' wasn't invented until the 1950's so once you turned 18, that's it - you're an adult. A debutante would host a coming-out ball where they would invite lots of other single aristocratic young people and then also be presented to the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace by a relative/friend who was previously a debutante themselves. Simply, it was the chance to have a social life for a few months before going back to your country estate in Kent.
So why am I not getting my gear on soon for my own coming out ball (not that I'm a Lady or anything)? Well, the notion of the debutante was abolished in the 1950's when our current Queen came to the throne.

Anyway. The book.
As I said, I liked the original setting of 1920's London - a place which many people know not that much about. There is a clear sense that Harrison has done her homework in regards to researching the atmosphere, etiquette and fashions of the day for a new debutante. Not only do you read about the world of being a debutante or indeed just living in the 1920's but also you experience the atmosphere of the time. This seemed like a true portrayal of the time. The elegance of the cover also transpires to the narrative.

I think the characters are what make this book. The four sisters that the plot is centred around are so different to one another which makes sure as a reader, there is at least one you could connect with. For me, it was Daisy. The four girls represent certain aspects of the time in my opinion - the jazz culture, the film industry of Hollywood, the rise in journalism from the creation of the BBC and then, the traditional aspects that stayed back of the society such as Violet's ambition to be the perfect debutante.
I begun this novel expecting a third person narrative looking at all the four sisters, perhaps in alternative chapters, or at least centred and narrated by Violet suggested from the title of the book. However, I was surprised to find the third person narrative focussed on Daisy. I liked this aspect in a way as this wasn't bias as it would be from the point of view of Violet and also, you get to learn more of the film industry from Daisy's knowledge of films and Hollywood. It made it really interesting to see how they made these films and how they critiqued them!
My problem with the narrative was it was quite confusing at times. All the sisters are of course 'she' so at times it was confusing to see which 'she' the 'she' was referring to especially if one of the other sisters had been speaking. It made it seem like they were doing the action when really it was Daisy. My other problem was the emphasis on Daisy. Because of this, the sisters are times were swept aside to focus on Daisy or Violet. The times Rose made an appearance, she was charming and brought humour to the book. Violet was portrayed as selfish and stuck-up to make you instantly love Daisy. Violet is an interesting, mixed emotions character and I felt that could have been played on more. I also felt Poppy's romance and problems would have been played on more too.

The vivid descriptions that run through continually make this a pleasure to read and I could imagine the scenes perfectly in my head, especially Justin - their friend. The dresses, the rooms and the actions are presented in a way to make them incredibly clear. I can easily see this made into a movie.

It's fair to say that the mystery of Elaine also tops this novel. There are clever hints and messages run through the book, some of which the reader would notice, others not. The ending I did predict but the surprises leading up to it I did not. This is a book that will both surprise you and give you a chance at being your own Sherlock Holmes.

Overall, it's clear that I enjoyed this novel because of it's sparkling, remarkable detail of the Derrington sisters world of 1920's London, a setting not used much in historical fiction. The characters are all so unique and different to one another and give you a sense of a large family group such as theirs (I'm an only child so I wouldn't know). The mystery, secrets and deception that underlay this novel has been executed superbly that leave you with at least some surprises at the ending. This is a novel for any fans of Downton Abbey - Violet seemed awfully like Mary at times and Justin as Matthew. This also seemed to me as a younger version of The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen.
This is supposed to be a series but the ending last lines give an air of finality to me so it will be interesting to see what the next novel's plot with centre around.

Fans of Downton Abbey or The Luxe, get this. This is the perfect summer read.

I give it a 4 out of 5

Author's Website:
Pages: 320
Publisher: Pan Macmillian
Challenges: BBC, Historical Fiction

Related Posts:
The Luxe: Splendor - Anna Godbersen
Bright Young Things - Anna Godbersen
I was Jane Austen's Best Friend - Cora Harrison


  1. I just finished reading this book today and was looking up other books by Cora Harrison when I came across this review. I thought that this book was fantastic, and your review was great. Hopefully there will be a sequel!!! :)

  2. I just finished reading this book and I loved it, I hope too that she will decide to carry on as I would have loved to have seen more interaction between Elaine, Daisy and the girls.
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