Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: The Girl from The Savoy

The Girl from The Savoy. Hazel Gaynor. Historical romance.

As a fan of thrillers and detective mysteries, this was never going to be my kind of book, writes Brian Byrne. Romantic historical fiction just doesn’t get space on my bookshelf. So while I waited for my pre-ordered ebook edition of 'The Girl from The Savoy' to drop into my iPad last week, my main interest was because it was Hazel Gaynor's third novel, and I admire the tenacity with which she has successfully established herself as an author. I also admire her writing skill, honed initially from a blog set up after she came to live in Kilcullen, now at the level of having four completed books and achieving writer conference keynote speaker status. But the story of a hotel maid whose burning ambition is to become a dance and revue star in the Bright Young Things era of post-WW1 London was never going to be at the top of my must-read list.

Except that once started, I couldn't put it down. As it happened, the book came to me while I was on holidays, during which I had already gone through a new Vatican-themed whodunnit bought at the airport and an old Inspector Wexford mystery left in a cupboard of our holiday apartment. It wasn't that I was short of something to do, as I bring my own writing work with me on holidays anyhow, and between this and exploring new places, time is well filled. But as soon as Dolly Lane arrived, she took over. As is mentioned in the book by many of the characters, there's 'something' about Dolly.

There are three primary people in this latest story from Hazel Gaynor. Dolly, her childhood friend and husband to be but gone to war Teddy, and darling of the London and New York stages Loretta. The author adopts the technique of having the voice of each separately tell their stories in the first person, a chapter at a time. Other characters and situations that both link and divide them appear in the narratives of each, where relevant. At first, these seem like lives fairly straightforward for their times. Dolly, moving from domestic service to serving the needs of the high-flying clientele of The Savoy. Teddy, desperately trying to recover from what was then known as ‘shell shock’. Loretta, at the peak of her career and determined to help someone else emulate her achievements.

Quickly enough, we think we know each of them. And what is going to happen to them and between them. Except that Hazel Gaynor has developed a deft touch of leaving clues through her stories which can mislead as much as lead. So the lives not just of her three main characters here, but many of the peripheral ones too, can take turns just as unexpected as do many of our real lives. This is partly why I found it difficult to put down ‘The Girl from The Savoy’.

The period setting is, like her previous books, around a hundred years ago. That’s an era which fascinates the author, and it’s clear that she revels in researching the detail for the background to whatever her current writing project is. We as readers get the benefit of that in how she figuratively paints her canvas on which to allow her characters to develop. It’s the detail, not overdone but there, which brings us into that period as we read. Which involves us with the fictional people to the level that they seem real. What’s also clear is that a century later, the things that are important to people haven’t changed. The pursuit of romance, love, ambition. The attraction of charisma, of drama, of music. The wish, so often remaining as just that, to be more than what we are.

And if there was just one line to describe what goes on in ‘The Girl from The Savoy’, it’s possibly that last. Dolly and her fellow travellers in this very real fictional life, becoming more than what they are.

No, it was never going to be my kind of book. Except that it turns out that it is.