Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review: Ashton Hall by Lauren Belfer

by Lauren Belfer
Release Date: June 7, 2022
2022 Ballantine Books
Kindle Edition; 416 Pages
ISBN: 978-0593359495
ASIN: B09G97M5G8
Audiobook: B09HVCVBLC
Genre: Fiction 
Source: Review copy from publisher

2.25 / 5 Stars
When a close relative falls ill, Hannah Larson and her young son, Nicky, join him for the summer at Ashton Hall, a historic manor house outside Cambridge, England. 

Soon after their arrival, ever-curious Nicky finds the skeletal remains of a woman walled into a forgotten part of the manor, and Hannah is pulled into an all-consuming quest for answers, Nicky close by her side. Working from clues in centuries-old ledgers showing what the woman's household spent on everything from music to medicine; lists of books checked out of the library; and the troubling personal papers of the long-departed family, Hannah begins to recreate the Ashton Hall of the Elizabethan era in all its color and conflict.
My Thoughts
Ashton Hall was a bit of a disappointment as it was touted as a mystery, particularly a gothic mystery, and it was anything but.  It was more of a literary women's fiction where Hannah comes to Ashton Hall to escape from some devastating revelations about her marriage and her husband and to figure out her place in the world and what she really wanted to do with her life.  Honestly, there is little mystery, suspense or thrill in this book, and by the middle, I had to push myself to keep reading.  I enjoyed Nicky as a character as he was quite interesting, but I definitely did not like how his issues were dealt with nor with how they were portrayed. There were parts in which I winced, not against Nicky, but even things his mother would think and say in his defense. And for heaven's sakes, why would Hannah not tell his baby-sitter about his rages? That could be dangerous for both Alice and Nicky.

The plot moves quite slowly, and though it is touted as a mystery, there is really no mystery to Isabelle's death, no real search for clues other than Hannah's glimpses in the past as she hunts through ledgers written by employees from Isabelle's time period.  And while you have no idea who the woman is for a couple of chapters, I spent those chapters trying to reconcile the fact that a 9-year-old boy, no matter how precocious or nosy, would have discovered the remains the way he did, within the time frame of arriving at the castle while those who have worked there for years would have remained ignorant. There is an archivist who works on site, with research students, and no one would have asked about the ruins in all that time? And how easily the stuff was found, no one else would have been able to find it, in 500 years? And they would have asked a person who hasn't finished her degree, who specializes in a completely different field, to research material? So, I'm a little skeptical. 
I did find the search through the ledges quite interesting, but then I love history. It does show that historical research is not all Indiana Jones, but very methodical and while interesting to the researcher, can be quite boring for someone not interested in history. I also loved how the author mentioned anchoresses in this book as they are often overlooked in mainstream fiction and non-fiction. There was some irony in this though, as Hannah had difficulty believing that a woman would choose such a path during the 16th century, a time period when few options were open to women, a viewpoint that just didn't work for me considering she was working on her PhD in history. But I loved the setting, and as soon as you mention ruins and deep, dark secrets along with the words manuscript and discovery, you've got me hooked. However, I was also not a big fan of Hannah as she got on my nerves quite a bit, but at the same time, I was also not a fan of the way the author portrayed her whole situation. And to try to justify it upon learning of her uncle's situation in life bothered me a little bit. I don't care how people live their lives, but there were parts that made me a bit uncomfortable as it seemed to justify cheating.  While Hannah was somewhat conflicted, she did try to justify her actions by feeling she was not doing anything as badly as her husband, and that was the mixed message I was getting from this story line. I just couldn't figure out if the author was trying to promote the idea of open marriages or make them seem like a negative thing. But to make Hannah seem like this great person because she chose to sacrifice her career for motherhood, then make her husband seem so loathsome for his behaviours and actions, and then to twist it even further and have him blame her for everything that is wrong with their son, just makes me cringe.  So many tropes and stereotypes to unpack, it just isn't worthwhile doing.  

Ashton Hall had an interesting premise, but was in no way a mystery.  I did like the author's writing style and would have liked to have seen more of Isabelle's story play a role in the book, but the parallels to Hannah's life were thought-provoking and provided a lot of room for introspection about one's role in life.  However, I wasn't a fan of the way the relationships were handled, nor did I like the way Nicky's issues and problems were discussed and handled. And the pace was pretty slow.  I really wanted to like this book, but there were too many things I just couldn't overlook. This one was just not for me.