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Rebecca Dean – Palace Circle

May 11, 2009

LibraryThing Early Reviewers53. Palace Circle by Rebecca Dean (2009)

Length: 416 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 30 April 2009
Finished: 06 May 2009

Where did it come from? LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Why do I have it? I don’t entirely remember requesting it, but I’m sure I thought it sounded like trashy scandalous fun.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 21 April 2009
Verdict? Will probably go to bookmooch or the library booksale.

Scandal among the
British upper crust should be
more entertaining.

Summary: Delia is an young woman from Virginia who marries into the British aristocracy in the years before World War I. When she learns that married life is not all it’s cracked up to be – particularly when your older husband has a long-term mistress that he’s not about to give up – she seeks comfort in a younger social circle… and in the arms of one of her husband’s friends. Their affair continues even after Delia’s husband is posted to Cairo to maintain British/Egyptian relations during troubled political times. However, Delia’s daughters must grow up under the shadow of their parents’ infidelities, and the looming specter of another war on the horizon.

Review: The cover of my edition of Palace Circle gushes “If you like Philippa Gregory, you will love this book!” And while I can kind of see how the comparison gets drawn, the main difference lies in the fact that Philippa Gregory can create well-developed characters, tell an interesting story, and occasionally use a comma correctly. Palace Circle, on the other hand…

Early on in the book, the main character is warned that “marital fidelity among the British aristocracy is not a highly esteemed virtue,” and that she should learn to accept it and not be constantly scandalized by it. Which is all well and good, except that most of the rest of the book seems to rely on the reader being constantly scandalized by the idea of marital infidelity. And, call me cynical if you like, but I’m not the sort to cry “Adultery?!? Oh my stars!” and drop into a swooning-but-still-slightly-titillated faint every few pages. There are some interesting aspects to this book (Egypt during the later days of British colonialism, Davina’s work at the orphanage/hospital), but they’re largely ignored in favor of the predictable “scandalous secrets” storyline. Rich and powerful people sleeping around and name-dropping other rich and powerful people (who are also sleeping around) does not a satisfactory novel make, but that’s all that’s really here for the first 60% of the book, before it takes a sharp left turn into a political espionage/war thriller.

…Which brings up my other main problem about the book: the structure. It’s divided into five sections, each told from a different point of view (Delia, Petra, Davina, Darius, and Jack.) I’ve seen this kind of structure work before, but it’s rare, and in this case, Dean doesn’t really pull it off. It feels as though we’re not really given enough time with any one character to get inside them, to understand (or care about) their problems and their motivations, or to get any sense of resolution, before we’re whisked away to someone else’s story. No one really gets any satisfying closure, and the main conflict that motivated the better part of the book is resolved by a secondary character on the second-to-last page of the book, so we’re just left to assume that everything worked out okay. This sort of telling-but-not-showing style of writing plagued the rest of the novel as well, making what should have been a fun and fluffy read into a rather ponderous one. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While the bare bones of this book sound appealing, I thought the execution was lacking. If you’re looking for a light, non-taxing read, it would serve acceptably, but there’s better fluffy historical fiction out there – like actual Philippa Gregory or Anna Godbersen‘s The Luxe series.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Palace Circle website

Other Reviews: Medieval Bookworm, Reading and Ruminations, Book Nook Club, Marta’s Meanderings
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The first rays of the rising sun filtered through the half-open shutters of the vast bedroom.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 17-18: ““Anyone bearing the title of ‘Sir’ is either a baronet or a knight. Referring to him as Mr. Bazeljette was a great solecism.” – a breach of good manners or etiquette.
    .
  • p. 125: ““I’m surprised she didn’t leave the Mere de Dieu and go to the lycée when you did.”” – a secondary school, esp. in France, maintained by the government.
    .
  • p. 163: “On any other occasion she would probably have enjoyed Winston’s rumbustious conversation, but she was too keyed up to appreciate it.” – Uncontrollably exuberant; unruly
    .
  • p. 180: “Magda, dressed in a lavender-blue silk, a peplum emphasizing the luscious curve of her hips, was holding her wrist high, entranced by the beauty of the diamond bracelet adorning it.” – a short full flounce or an extension of a garment below the waist, covering the hips.
    .
  • p. 267: “In October, Davina learned Wallis had been granted a decree nisi. Delia was distraught.” – a decree, esp. of divorce, that will become absolute at a later date.
    .
  • p. 282: “At a nearby table an elderly businessman in a tarboosh and Savile Row suit was sharing what Darius judged to be a few stolen moments with a beautiful girl young enough to be his granddaughter.” – a tasseled cap of cloth or felt, usually red, that is worn by Muslim men either by itself or as the inner part of the turban.
    .
  • p. 293: “He was wearing a galabia made of expensive black cloth lavishly edged with gold braid.” – A long, loose, hooded garment with full sleeves, worn especially in Muslim countries.
    .
  • p. 298: ““I’ve just left him at the Muhammad Ali Club and he’s deep in a hand of chemin de fer.” – a variation of baccarat.
    .
  • p. 313: “It was equally obvious that as far as Ivor was concerned Darius was now de trop and should take his leave.” – in the way; not wanted.
    .
  • p. 345: “Two safragis ran to meet him dressed in blindingly white galabias sashed in crimson.” – I can’t find an official definition, but it’s clearly a word for an (Egyptian) servant.
    .
  • p. 396: ““No. I’m a pukka archaeologist.”” – genuine, reliable, or good; proper.
    .
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9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2009 5:35 am

    You enumerated the faults in this book better than I did! I think it’s a shame that it didn’t turn out better. The story does sound like it has potential.

  2. May 11, 2009 8:53 am

    I’ve just started reading some historical fiction, but haven’t tackled “girly” historical fiction (as Booking Mama once called it) yet. I guess I won’t start with this one.

  3. May 11, 2009 12:01 pm

    I haven’t gotten to this one yet, but I got an Early Reviewer copy, too. Boo!

  4. May 11, 2009 12:54 pm

    Meghan – When I got to Davina’s section, I really thought things were going to pick up… and then her part was over and we moved into political thriller. Ah well.

    bermudaonion – Jennifer Donnelly’s adult books are another good place to start on “girly” historical fiction. (I like the term!)

    LitHouse – Yeah, it’s… not as good as it could have been. Not wholly without merit, but not what I wanted it to be, either. Good luck!

  5. May 11, 2009 4:21 pm

    I’m about 100 pages into this right now and I can already see what you’re talking about. On the plus side, it is a relatively quick read and a relatively painless one, even if I sort of wish I could skip it for something better.

  6. May 11, 2009 5:04 pm

    DoB – Yeah, it wasn’t a hard or slow read by any means, but it took me a while because I was never really motivated to pick it up.

  7. May 15, 2009 12:56 pm

    I’m still trying to finish this one, and I agree with most of what you’ve said. The Philippa Gregory line hooked me, but no way is the writing like Gregory at all. It’s one of those books that are so easy to read, but if I set it aside for a minute there is no feeling of needing or wanting to pick it back up.

  8. May 19, 2009 4:18 pm

    Great words!

  9. June 24, 2009 7:28 pm

    The continuous changes in perspective really bothered me, too. Every time I got really interested in one story line, it would change to someone else. On the whole, it just seemed rather shallow – and if you’re going to do melodrama, shouldn’t there be some deep emotion involved?

    I enjoyed reading your review, and I linked to it here.

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