Pan Books (2015) | 637 pages
I’ve been trying to write this review for a while. I actually finished reading The Angel Tree halfway through July, and have been stewing over it ever since without the ability – which, to be honest, comes frequently for me – to actually put my thoughts into words. I can’t really describe why this is.
But here I am. The Angel Tree was a Christmas present last year, and from reading the blurb I immediately believed I’d love it. It tells you of a character with amnesia who is working to retrieve her memories; of a grand house amongst some beautiful hills, where a lot of the story will no doubt take place; and of a mysterious daughter named Cheska, who sounds as if she’s got some skeletons in her closet and whose story appears to be laced with tragedy. Overall, it’s my kind of thing.
When I actually started reading the book, the promise did remain true for quite a while. Although the beginning, with its multiple character introductions and fairly confusing narrative, was quite off-putting initially (I mean, how could it not be confusing, following a character who, like us, has barely any idea who the people around her are?), we soon move backward in time and everything begins to take shape. We start by exploring Greta’s life as an “actress” in a club named the Windmill Theatre. To begin with, I found Greta’s story really interesting; we see many faces of her, from a vulnerable adolescent to an extremely headstrong and determined player in an extremely unlucky game, and her character gets very well developed throughout these chapters. When she has Cheska, her daughter, her strength is admirable, and you feel extremely sorry for her when unfortunate things begin to happen.
It’s once Cheska begins to grow up, however, that I began to lose faith in Greta. Some of the decisions she makes are not particularly likeable, and the way she attempts to live her life through her daughter is frustrating. I could tell just how her actions were going to affect Cheska in her later life, and all I could do was watch while their lives spiralled out of control. I can’t remember exactly when I stopped enjoying this book as much as I did initially, but it was around page 186. Perhaps at the end of the 6th paragraph, when Cheska has her name changed to “Cheska Hammond”. I mean, I can’t remember exactly when, but that sounds about right. Yep.
Of course, this book is big. Just holding it now, with its monstrous weight and length, I wonder how on earth I managed to finish it; at a whopping 637 pages, this story follows three generations of Marchmont life – starting with Greta, then swapping to Cheska, then briefly exploring Ava. We see how Greta’s actions affect Cheska, and how Cheska, in turn, affects Ava. Throughout the novel, Marchmont Hall, the grand house mentioned in the blurb, is at the centre of every character’s personalities and desires. Greta wishes too hard to become its mistress; Cheska wants it for her own gain; and Ava, portrayed as the perfect granddaughter, frolics in the grounds without any of the flaws her mother and grandmother held.
Strangely enough, these three key residents of the house aren’t related in any way to the Marchmont bloodline, and those that are – David Marchmont and his mother – are secondary characters within the drama. And I could even go as far as to describe David as merely a tool in Greta’s story – a lever to get her where she wants to be. David is a strange character – nice to everyone, angry at everyone, and polite with everything he says – and despite being constantly present throughout every plot thread this gargantuan family drama contains, he never really gets to experience his own story. Everything he does, everything he says is to benefit Greta in some way. And as soon as he does get some independence, he’s told by his fiancée to leave and start chasing Greta again.
Similarly, while there is a sense of the technological advancement through the generations, Marchmont Hall poses as a perfect little bubble of nostalgia where nothing seems to advance. The world moves forward only when the characters are away from the house, but somehow, it keeps dragging them back into its warm embrace. Ava nearly escapes to complete her degree, but keeps having to come back for LJ; and Cheska, despite having a life far away from Marchmont, decides to return with fiery determination. And Greta, well. The Marchmont coincidence never seems to leave her alone.
While I do have certain problems with this book, both with the plot and the characters, I have to admit that it is one of the most addicting books I’ve read. I was hooked, right from the beginning, and there was something very satisfying about following the story of these characters through the generations. You can’t help but learn a lot from these characters and from the house itself, and being able to see the repercussions of Greta’s night with the American gentleman ripple throughout her descendants’ lives reminds you just how much our decisions can have an impact on the world around us. But would we change a thing? Probably not.