Book Review: The Cavendon Luck
The Cavendon Luck
by Barbara Taylor Bradford
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
The Cavendon Luck, the latest lush historical drama from Barbara Taylor Bradford (third in the series that began with Cavendon Hall and continued with The Cavendon Women), brings the intertwined stories of two families in England right into the maw of the Second World War. The first of these families is the noble Ingham clan, the earls and their wives, sisters, mothers, sons, and daughters, and the second is the Swann family, their faithful retainers through the generations at the ancestral pile, Cavendon Hall. And although this latest book teems like the two previous with plots and sub-plots involving everybody from the lord and lady of the Hall to their offspring to the inhabitants of the village, the focus – indeed, almost the main character – is Cavedon Hall itself and the settled order of family and fidelity it represents for virtually everybody in the book (bomb-tossing Bolsheviks very much need not apply). The lady of the manor, Cecily, was born a Swann and has married Miles, who’s now the earl. They have three grown children, all of whom are embroiled in family-plots of their own, and by this third volume Bradford has the whole sprawling welter of interconnected stories bubbling at a fine froth of back-story. She’s a practiced hand at cutting dozens of characters out of bargain cardboard bought in bulk and then moving those characters from point to point in a narrative that never rises above Then This Happened and rather gloriously never seems to want to.
The Cavendon Luck is one of the summer’s latest examples of the multi-volume historical family saga at its soapiest (Kate Williams is currently chaperoning her readers through a more or less identical breathless fictionalization of the 20th century, and of course Ken Follett recently softened up the ground with his 6000-pages “Century Trilogy”), and those readers gauche enough to be her detractors will be forced to admit that nobody does soap better than Barbara Taylor Bradford. This latest volume isn’t four pages old, in fact, before Cecily is consulting an honest-to-gosh fortune-telling gypsy woman – if that doesn’t speak to your authorial intent to ladle out jaw-dropping schmaltz, nothing will.
The gypsy woman, needless to say, is less than generous with helpful specifics (you never talk to these women without wanting your money back). When ‘the sight’ comes on her, her eyes roll up and she lapses into Donald Trump tweets: “Yer’ll have ter be brave, liddle Ceci, as yer’ve allus been. There’ll be deaths. War is coming. Big war. Bad times. Terrible things coming.”
Of course she turns out to be right, and soon the Cavendon crowd, posh toffs and working stiffs alike, are facing the rise of the Third Reich and the gathering shadows of a new European war. In the time-honored tradition of crowd-pleasers going all the way back to John Jakes’ bestselling “Bastard” chronicles, Bradford gives her characters up-close seats at all the most famous events of the bad times that are unfolding. It’s a strategy that makes the requisite dumping of exposition at least lively, if not particularly believable:
“Those Mitford sisters take the cake!” Hugo exclaimed. “Worshipping at the shrine of the Fuhrer, and Unity fawning all over him. He’s very flattered by all the attention he gets from certain members of the British aristocracy. Fools, the lot of them. No wonder Churchill sits fuming. I would, too. In fact, I do fume, in sympathy with him.”
The war threatens Cavendon’s very survival, and Bradford hasn’t written thirty hit novels without knowing how to turn that kind of melodrama into page-turning reading. As summer indulgences go, consequently, The Cavendon Luck bears a striking resemblance to most of its main characters: it’s choice and charming and very nearly brainless, and you’re interested almost despite yourself in its self-absorbed burblings.