By Penny Vincenzi
Overlook. 710 pp. $26.95
OK, so you've read Bob Woodward's book and Richard Clarke's book and Tommy Franks's book and Paul O'Neill's book. Then there were Joe Wilson's and Seymour Hersh's and Maureen Dowd's. You really are up on all the political news and gossip. The election is over, and you're exhausted mentally, physically and psychologically. Regardless of whether your candidate won, you're sick of the whole thing. You need a break.
I've got just the book for you. It's Something Dangerous, by Penny Vincenzi, and it's a sequel to last year's bestelling No Angel, but you don't really have to read the first one to appreciate the second.
Here's the thing about this book: It's so relaxing. It is in no way intellectual. It requires nothing of the reader. It takes place in England between 1928 and 1946, and it's like a great big cup of steaming hot tea with milk and honey and scones with clotted cream. It's not really a beach read; it's more of a curl up in front of the fireplace with a throw over your lap kind of read.
The book is the saga of a large family that owns a successful old publishing house in London. In fact the author says it best when one of her characters discusses a just-published book: "Pandora found herself increasingly addicted to such stories: sufficient to hold her attention, but not in the least demanding."
Vincenzi could have been describing her own book. It's actually quite ironic, as if the author wanted a reviewer to pick up on that sentence or this passage:
"It always amused her, how commercial a publisher Celia was. . . . you would imagine all her books would be seriously intellectual. . . . but she had an ear that was brilliantly attuned to public taste; it had seen her through the difficult publishing years of the war. . . . all part, Celia said, of the need for escapism, escape from the Depression. . . . Pandora was rather guiltily aware that she should have been reading 'Vile Bodies,' the new Evelyn Waugh book . . . but somehow it wasn't as -- well, as enjoyable as 'Death After Dinner.' "
I first read No Angel on vacation last winter in a Mexican resort where the weather wasn't great and I just stayed in bed and read and slept and ate. Frankly, I couldn't remember the name of the book or the author afterwards, but I had the sensation that I had been lulled into something very pleasant -- sort of what lobsters must feel like when they're put in a pot of cold water and it gradually heats up until it's boiling and they're cooked without even realizing it. So I was looking forward to the same pleasurable sensation with this second book -- what's it called? Oh, yes, Something Dangerous. I wasn't disappointed.
Something Dangerous continues the story of the first book and its characters, which I had forgotten but slowly came to remember once again. (By the way, the main characters are all listed in the front of the book by the country in which they are featured, so you really don't have to do any work at all. If you forget who they are or you happen to nap while reading, when you wake up you just turn to the front and there they are to remind you.)
Lady Celia Lytton is the protagonist, the headstrong, ruthless, beautiful, talented, successful "no angel" of the first book. She's the one you love to hate but really can't because she has a vulnerable side to her, which you rarely but inevitably get a peek at. She has a bunch of children who do not always get along. The main story focuses on her twin daughters, Venetia and Adele. Celia also has an adopted daughter, plucked from the slums when she was a charity worker, who never quite fits in but predictably outshines Celia's own children. Celia's parents are stock British aristocracy characters who live in an enormous house in the country. Her husband adores her but reins her in even though he's never been the same since he was wounded in Germany during World War I.
Both the New York branch of the family and the publishing house are always causing problems. And the French contingent of characters consists of the Paris branch of the publishing house and its Jewish editor, who marries one of Celia's daughters right before the Germans invade France.
Something Dangerous flows along comfortably for all of its 710 pages with no real surprises, thank God! That would be too jolting. The easy and unremarkable writing takes you from scene to scene with well-constructed, predictable transitions.
What's so wonderful about this book is that once you have identified all of the characters and gotten to know them, the author gives you exactly what you expect and never disappoints. All the right people die, even the ones you like but realize must be dispensed with to move the story along. You feel in league with the author, as if an unwritten contract between reader and writer dictates that she will never betray you, nor confuse, confound, surprise, challenge, hurt or scare you.
You buy this book because you know what you want, the same way you would buy a velvet hot-water bottle so you will be warm and comfortable without the risk of scalding. Vincenzi writes vividly about the interwar era in England, with a great deal of detail and knowledge. The best part of Something Dangerous, and the most engrossing, comes with the Nazis closing in on Paris, heightening Adele's deep concern for the welfare of her Jewish husband and their children. Her attempted escape from Paris as the Nazis are entering the city is harrowing and almost seems part of some other book, where the author steps out of her fashionable, cozy world and enters a real and gritty place without happy endings.
I wonder what Vincenzi could do if she broke away from her obviously successful (and lucrative) family saga romance-type novels -- she seems quite capable of writing something dangerous -- but I'm glad she didn't this time around. She gave me some very pleasurable hours with her latest novel, and I can't wait to read the next. *
Sally Quinn is a novelist ("Regrets Only" and "Happy Endings") and a reporter for The Washington Post.