Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Penhallow

Penhallow Cover
Penhallow, by Georgette Heyer, was my choice for this month's Classics Circuit.  When I heard that Heyer was this month's choice, I literally squealed with excitement as she is one of my favorite authors.  I love to read her for when I am in the mood for a light, happy and fun story.

Penhallow is not light, happy or fun.  It was a very difficult book for me to read and, much as it pains me to say it... I did not enjoy it.  I think it was well written, but the story was hard for me to connect to.  (On a side note, this is one of the reasons I no longer give ratings to books on my blog- how do you rate a well-written book with a storyline you disliked?)

Penhallow takes place in the English countryside, like all Heyer's mysteries.  Adam Penhallow is a horrible autocratic man who keeps his many children (legitimate and illegitimate) close to him, ruling every aspect of their lives with an iron will.  They are all terrified of him, and they all hate each other.  Their lives revolve around horses, getting into massive arguments with one another (and their spouses, significant others, the maids, etc.), sponging off their father, and generally hating their lives.

The murder mystery is a little different than the usual fare because the murder doesn't occur until 2/3rds of the way through the book, and the readers know who did it and why.  The remainder of the story is the fallout from this murder and how it affects everyone's future.

I have said before that Heyer's mysteries have a much more caustic sense of humor than her Regency or Georgian romances.  I would go so far as to say Penhallow forgets the humor and focuses only on the sarcasm.  I said before that this book is well-written; you can feel the tension and the anger, all simmering and coming to a boil.  There are so many characters (far more than necessary!), but after a while you realize you don't need to get them straight because no one likes anyone else, anyway.  And nearly all of them would have a motive to commit the murder that is done.

I can't help but feel that Heyer was having a really bad day/week/month/quarter when she wrote this book.  I know she was generally not a happy person in her adult life, and she often felt that she deserved to be at a higher status socially than she actually was.  These insecurities come out in full force in Penhallow, and it made me uncomfortable to read the story.  I didn't like any of the characters.  I didn't like the glimpse into Heyer that the book gave me.  I wanted to scream and shake people.  I definitely don't recommend this book as a first (or even a tenth) Heyer to read, but if you like books that focus on intricate and sometimes disturbing relationships between family members... then this is for you.

I did find two aspects of the story really interesting, based on recent reading and Georgette Heyer.  First, there is a set of twins in this book, male ones, and one is very jealous when the other falls in love with a woman and the twin relationship is changed completely.  This reminded me of the twin girls in Cassandra at the Wedding, in which a similar circumstance occurred.  I love reading books with overlapping themes of that sort in a small time frame!

Second, this book touches a theme that often comes up in Heyer's books- the idea that one is "born" into a class and that "blood will tell."  In These Old Shades, a huge aspect of the novel is that one of the characters grew up an abandoned orphan but it was so obvious she was really of high birth because of her grace, manners and interests (as opposed to a certain farmer who is only interested in horses, sheep and cows).  In this book, that theme comes up in a slightly different manner.  Penhallow of the title is a country gentleman.  He loves to ride horses and be outside and hunt, etc.  His second wife was from the city and their son dislikes horses, riding, hunting and anything else outdoorsy, so Penhallow says repeatedly that he doesn't think this child can be his.  This time, it's not so much the class distinction (though that's there, too) but the "city mouse/country mouse" distinction.  It comes up in other ways during the story that would give away some of the plot, so I can't share.  But it was interesting to see a slight shift in the way this (ridiculous) theory was applied by Heyer in her stories.

So while I didn't like Penhallow, I think it was interesting on other levels besides the story.  Also, I can't find a picture online of my edition, but I have one from 1942 that has an advertisement to buy war bonds on the back cover and mentions a lot about the war in the publisher information.  It also had a newspaper clipping inside that had a torn-off portion of an ad for buying whiskey at "pre-war" prices.  I wrote about finding this book here.  I love that I have a book by one of my favorite authors in such a historical context of an edition.  (I know that sentence makes no sense, but I don't know how else to say it!)

Do you have a wonderful edition of a book that you love and appreciate?


  1. This actually sounds interesting for me. I've only read one of Heyer's books and I thought it was quite light and simple. I didn't enjoy it too much. This one sounds more complex. I'll put it on my list. Thanks for the review! That's an interesting vintage cover you have there.

  2. I was just reading Heyer's bio on Wikipedia a couple of days ago and there is a little blurb there (under Financial Problems) that says she wrote Penhallow as a way to get out of her publishing contract. It's kind of interesting--Book Review Digest apparently called it "a murder story but not a mystery story." :)

  3. Thanks for reviewing this one, Aarti. I agree with you 100%, Penhallow is a bleak story, however well written and plotted. She did a good job showing us how windswept and wide the Cornish farmlands are, but those characters, that unsuspenseful murder, and the bitter tone doesn't do much for me.

  4. Mrs. B- Yes, this is definitely a more complex story than Heyer's usual fare! And that isn't actually the cover of my book. I have a really pretty one, but can't find it online anywhere.

    Katy- That is a perfect description of the story!

    Sudha- I didn't realize you had read Penhallow yet! You're right, though. It is just TOO bitter.

  5. Nothing quite as disappointing as getting ready to read an author you love and being disappointed. : (

  6. Aww-that's too bad you didn't enjoy it more.

  7. Love your story about the 1940s edition of the book -- with war bonds, etc., how cool. I have a 1910 edition of Daddy Long Legs that I bought at a library sale, my favorite vintage book find. I was never really interested in old editions but now I'm always on the lookout.

  8. I have just been given a set of books dating back to the 1930's, all in hard back which used to belong to my husband's grandparents. They are so beautiful and have all the Bronte books and Jane Austen ones. They are now my most prized books as well as a copy of Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley,which is extremely rare.

    I am sorry you didn't enjoy this one, though I am intrigued to read it with the twins situation in.

  9. That makes perfect sense :) I'd love to have something like that too

  10. Jenners- Absolutely. It was sad!

    Eva- That's ok. She's still one of my favorites and it was interesting.

    Karen- Oh, that's so fun! I never was into them, either, but now I like to find fun, older editions. Heyer, especially, as I don't particularly like the new editions.

    Vivienne- Yes, I thought you'd like the twins. How amazing about those books!!

    Blodeuedd- Glad you understand :-)

  11. Aw, that's too bad. I love that your book has all the war references on it. So cool.

  12. Anonymous3/15/2010

    Hello,nice post thanks for sharing?. I just joined and I am going to catch up by reading for a while. I hope I can join in soon.

  13. I'm wondering if I'll still enjoy the Heyer mysteries, if they are all bleak. The Regency romances are so fun and escapist.

  14. Chris- Yes, very cool!

    Jenny- They're not all bleak! I haven't read them all, but for one, Footsteps in the Dark is FUN :-)

  15. Anonymous3/15/2010

    I'm reading Cotillion for the tour, my first Heyer book, and really enjoying it. I'm looking forward to trying her mysteries.

  16. Anonymous3/15/2010

    This does sound horribly negative, which is a shame when Heyer does positive so well. I'll have to read it one day, to see if she gets Cornwall right, so at least I am forewarned.

  17. Predictably, I am now starting to regret not having joined the Heyer tour. I WILL get to her before too long, though, and I'll make sure not to start with Penhallow (unless I happen to be in the mood for a really caustic book, lol). Sorry you were let down - it always saddens me when a book by a favourite author doesn't live up to my expectations.

  18. Sounds like a tense read...and not in a good way! I do admire you for getting through it though. You seem to have a deep regard for Heyer and her work, and have even stuck it out through the uncomfortable books. I am not sure I would read this one, but you do make it sound very intriguing in it's darkness! Awesome review!

  19. I love older, vintage editions of books. One of my best friends is currently collecting First Editions of Daphne du Maurier's works which I find to be totally AWESOME!

    It sucks you didn't love this one as much as Heyer's other works. Ah, well.

  20. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy this one. I will yet have to read G.H. and I think I will start with her mystery novels.

  21. It's weird, I just finished a book about which I had the exact opposite reaction. I enjoyed the story line, but there was nothing else about it that I liked. And I didn't really know how to rate it or what to say about it, because I LIKED it for the story, but I had trouble with the characters and the style, etc. . .
    Anyhow, I've never read Heyer, but I'm intrigued after your review, and I might check out one of her other works.

  22. Hmm, I think I'll skip this Heyer ;)

  23. Carol- Cotillion is one of my favorites!

    fleurfisher- You're right, she DOES do positive well. She did this well, too, but I just couldn't handle so much unhappiness.

    Nymeth- It saddens me, too, but Heyer knows she's my home girl ;-)

    Zibilee- Wow, new favicon! Very nice :-) I definitely think when you try Heyer, you should try a different one first.

    April- I love old editions, too. I think an old du Maurier would be so great to have!

    Andreea- Yes, her mysteries are fun but not, to me, as lovable as her romances :-)

    brizmus- Yes, I don't know how you review stories like that, either! I tend to just babble...

    Teresa- Good idea- though maybe try it another time!

  24. Now, why does this actually intrigue me? I had difficulties with peppy Heyer. Sarcastic Heyer sounds intriguing though. Thanks for the review!

    (And I agree with your thoughts on ratings.)

  25. I have read one of Heyer's other mysteries and found the characters to be a bit removed from the reader. I will read more eventually, but I think I am going to read more of her romances and her straight historical fiction titles.

  26. Awesome review. I like Katy's information about the publishing contract. A book written in a spirit of resentment! I need to read Heyer's biography. But maybe only after I've read all her books...

  27. Anonymous3/23/2010

    Somehow I never liked Heyer's mysteries. They are not as good as her regency romances.

    I didn't know that she had not lived a very happy life. Quite surprising, I just never associated that with her.

  28. Thanks! for the review, might pass on this one.

  29. How disappointing, considering how much you LOVE Heyer!

    My brother once bought a few dozen National Geographic Magazines from a garage sale, all were from the 1950s. The ads were quite entertaining...


I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.