Reviews for Ashenden

Booklist Reviews 2012 December #1
This is the story of a house. When British siblings Charlie and Ros learn they have inherited Ashenden, one of the finest late Palladian houses in the country, from their aunt, they are faced with a dilemma. Repair and upkeep would be prohibitively expensive, and the National Trust isn't interested, having shifted its priorities. What to do? Following this preamble, Wilhide leads the reader back more than 230 years to the arrival by barge of the fine Bath stone that will be used to renovate an old manor house in Berkshire. Succeeding chapters trace the house's history as the fortunes of its different owners rise and fall. As Wilhide notes in her acknowledgments, Ashenden is modeled on a real house (used in a recent Jane Austen film adaptation), which, instead of staying in the same family for generations, mirrored the times through its ups and downs. Continuity comes from the fact Ashenden endures. Readers intrigued by English country houses will enjoy this stately home tour, given from a variety of perspectives, both upstairs and down. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2013 January
Inside the great house

Do you have “Downton Abbey” fever? Novelist Fay Weldon and interior design expert Elizabeth Wilhide have just the books to keep you happily distracted until the third season begins on January 6—or to ease the wait for season four.

Over her 40-year career as a writer, Fay Weldon has been known for her unpredictability, from controversial early novels such as The Life and Loves of a She-Devil to the commercial tie-in The Bulgari Connection. Now the author of the first episode of the original “Upstairs Downstairs” turns her attentions to 1890s England. The first in a planned trilogy, Habits of the House is a comedy of manners that takes advantage of Weldon’s rich sense of farce.

Habits of the House opens on the well-appointed front steps of 17 Belgrave Square, where Eric Baum, financial counselor to the Earl of Dilberne, is ringing the doorbell. The relentless pealing sets off a chain of responses from the domestic staff, who ignore the bell, deeming Baum “too foreign looking” to be worthy of the front door. Lady Isobel and her adult children, the ne’er-do-well Robert and his fiercely independent suffragette sister, Rosina, can’t be bothered to get out of bed. It is the Earl who finally allows Baum in, noting that this is the first time he has opened the front door himself.

The news Baum brings isn’t good—the Earl’s investments in South African gold mines have been badly affected by the Boer war. The only real answer is to marry the children off to money without delay, despite the fact that Rosina seems unmarriageable and Robert is keeping a mistress. Cue the entrance of wealthy Americans—beef baron Billy O’Brien, his vulgar wife, Tessa, and their daughter Minnie, a beautiful girl with a questionable past.

Habits of the House moves quickly, and though the characters sometimes seem like they’ve been ordered from Central Casting (doughty cook, brash American, street-smart manservant), the novel retains a tongue-in-cheek humor even when it examines the tougher issues of the times.

Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden traces the history of a grand British home from the 18th century to the present. Middle-aged New Yorker Charlie Minton is awoken by a phone call from his sister: They have inherited the estate owned by their Uncle Hugo and Aunt Reggie. Charlie goes to England to find the house in terrible disrepair. The National Trust isn’t interested, and he and his sister can’t agree on another solution. The novel then moves from the present day through the two centuries since the house was built. Readers meet the financially insolvent Mores, who never even paid the initial builder; Mrs. Trimble, who spent years as a housekeeper only to end up impoverished; a POW during World War II; and finally Reggie and Hugo, for whom the restoration of the house was an extension of their loving marriage.

This is Wilhide’s first novel, though she has written books on interior design and collaborated on projects with notables like designer Orla Kiely. Ashenden’s history is based on the history of Basildon Park, which was also built in the 18th century, lived in by many families, turned into an army hospital and a prisoner of war camp, and lovingly restored in the 1950s. This charming book suggests a house is a living, ever-changing thing, deeply affected by the people who live and work in it.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 November #1
Episodes in the life of a grand British country house, with its upstairs and downstairs dramas, add up to an unusual, engaging, Downton Abbey-esque saga. Fortunes are lost and gained, relationships forged and broken, individual fates briefly glimpsed then encountered again decades later as the centuries melt into each other in U.K.-based Wilhide's unusual debut. Architecture, social shifts, private lives and next generations are the running themes, with Ashenden Park, a magnificent Palladian stately home, as the beating heart and central location of the sequence of vignettes that starts in 2010, with the reluctant inheritance of the neglected pile by a brother and sister, and then shifts back to 1775 and the arrival of the golden Bath stone from which it will be built. Wilhide introduces Ashenden's architect and his gifted apprentice, who is killed in an accident during construction, and then the various owners: a spendthrift noble; a thrifty haberdasher; a property developer. But the servants are included too, the pregnant chambermaids and unfairly dismissed housekeepers. While much of the historical background might seem routine, Wilhide brings freshness and emotional depth to the snapshots and links them astutely. Oddly, the most modern scenes, though tidily interleaved, are the least memorable. A carefully crafted, touching historical that achieves exactly the right note of rewarding readability. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 October #2

This beautifully written debut novel takes us on a moving pilgrimage through the ups and downs of human nature, all within the walls of a historic English mansion. Wilhide, author of more than 20 books on interior design, decoration, and architecture, does a terrific job of introducing the reader to the history of Ashenden, starting with a tragedy in 1775 and continuing with the house's construction through the two world wars and into the present day. The story jumps through the years--sometimes skipping a decade, sometimes a century--but each vignette is connected through the house and its residents, servants, neighbors, and visitors. Within these stories, we meet the original architect who puts his heart into this house's design, servants in desperation, happy families, and miserable couples, all against a historical background. VERDICT With its top-notch writing, strong character development, and excellent plot, this will be on the reserve list of Downton Abbey fans, historical fiction readers, and family saga buffs.--Marianne Fitzgerald, Annapolis, MD

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 October #3

Wilhide, an interior design and architecture writer, delivers a tedious historical exploration of an 18th-century English estate house in her debut novel. When Charlie Minton and his sister, Ros, inherit Ashenden Park (based on an actual estate in Berkshire, England) from their recently deceased aunt, they are forced to decide its fate., The house's history is revealed through chronologically ordered flashbacks, one per chapter. The unidentified narrator, however, focuses more on the people whose lives revolve around the house; each chapter begins with a quick look at the house during that particular period before following the characters who then inhabit it. Unfortunately, there is little to thread this series of short stories together other than the building itself. As the supporting characters barely resurface from one chapter to the next, they are hardly given a chance to develop, and though the house is the intended central character, the execution is too disjointed, leaving the reader uninvested in the story. Though the descriptions of time and place befit an author who has made her name in the design and dcor world, Wilhide's ho-hum book lacks narrative tightness. Agent: Anthony Goff, David Higham Associates. (Jan.)

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