Haunted by phantoms of the Second World War and the Holocaust, young Cressida lives in terror of George Harding, who, severely disfigured, has returned from the front to recover in his family’s stately African home. When he plucks young Cressida’s beautiful mother and her family from financial ruin, establishing them in the old servants’ quarters of his estate, Cressida is swept into a future inexorably bound to his.
In the new setting, she finds that she is, after all, indentured. She is conscripted to enliven George Harding’s nephew, the hopelessly timid Edgar, to make him “wild and daring.” And she takes on this task with resentful fury, leading the boy astray and, in the process, learning to manipulate differences in power, class, background, and ambition. Only slowly does she come to understand that George Harding himself is watching her. And waiting.
** spoiler alert ** A blurb on the back of the book likened this book to a Beauty & the Beast tale, and it certainly is that. However, it’s a somewhat disturbing story, in that the heroine is a teenage girl (13 at the outset) who became (eventually) the wife of the beast…in this case, a severely burned WWII vet who came home to recover. There was a definite undercurrent of something inappropriate there, and though it was made “relatively” clear that nothing untoward happened between the two until 1) she was of legal age, and 2) she made the first move, it nonetheless struck me as a little pedophelic, and as such a little creepy.
Most of the characters in this book were supremely unlikeable. Cressida was a flighty, emotional, snotty teenager for the majority of the book. She grew out of it to a great extent by the end, but I had a hard time liking her, though when it came to choosing between her and most of the other characters, it was impossible to root for anyone else. Her mother was not only useless, but amoral, selfish, and ridiculously snobby. Her sister was stupid and mean. Both were jealous bitches in the extreme. Mrs. Arbuthnot (Mr. Harding’s housekeeper) was an absolute shrew. Edgar was a creep and a pervert, as was his roommate (and tutor). George Harding himself was weird and a little creepy, but he ultimate proved himself to be a reasonably decent man.
Phineas was hilarious and blunt, and I loved him. But best of all was Elspeth, who proved her mettle and the truth of her heart by letting go of the man she loved (George Harding) so he have who he loved most (Cressida). I loved her for her unselfishness, and her true & freely given friendship to Cressida.
In the end, the book is a winner. It provoked an emotional reaction in me, and made me pause to evaluate exactly what makes a relationship work. In the case here, it was definitely a collection of unusual characteristics that perhaps in any other circumstance would not have worked. And perhaps that is, in essence, the beauty of Beauty and the Beast.