Casting off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

casting off

The fourth book in Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, Casting Off continues where the last book left off.  Originally, this was the final book in the series, the fifth only being published eighteen years later. I think that if I was reading this as the last book then I may have had more questions by the end (mainly relating to Louise and Villy), but I think that the other storylines were resolved satisfactorily.

Sometimes you can pick up a book in the middle of a series and read it as a standalone. I doubt that Casting Off would work if you hadn’t read the previous novels though. The family is too vast and so much has happened to them that, in spite of the potted history and family tree at the beginning, I don’t think a casual reader would find it enjoyable. As part of the series though I think this novel did most of what I wanted to.

We pick back up in July 1945. Rupert has just returned from France, years after everyone thought he was dead and months after he could have. Clary, who kept the faith that he was alive, feels that he abandoned them, and his wife Zoe feels guilt over the affair that she had while Rupert was missing (little knowing that the reason he stayed away so long was that he found love himself, in France). Older brother Edward finally comes clean to his wife Villy, and tells her about his mistress.

The daughters are now grown up and provide the main focus of the novel: Louise, still stuck in her loveless marriage; Polly still struggling to get over unrequited love for Archie, Rupert;s good friend; and Clary, embarking upon her own first love affair.

There is so much going on that it is a wonder that Howard manages to corral all of her characters into a format that makes sense. Having the book split into different sections (‘The Girls’, ‘The Wives’) makes it easier to keep a handle on whose point of view we’re looking from, though sometimes I found myself reading several paragraphs without knowing quite which character I was inhabiting which felt a little odd. Also, sometimes as a reader you want to follow a character for longer which isn’t possible with such a huge cast. I found that ‘The Outsiders’ sections were of less interest (apart from Sid – big cheer for her and Rachel finally sorting themselves out!). I’ve never cared much about Miss Milliment and I’d be happy enough if Villy’s sister Jessica and her whole family vanished. As much as I found Raymond’s storyline touching, it added nothing to the piece as a whole and I’d have much preferred Howard to use that space to go back to Louise and her strange marriage to Michael (and the hideous mother in law who was sadly quite quiet in this novel).

Verdict: definitely one for the fans. It ties up most of the ends but I’m glad there’s another book to go

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