Title: The FitzOsbornes in Exile
Author: Michelle Cooper
Length: 450 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ½
Warning: This review contains minor spoilers; if you would like a spoiler-free review, they are hidden on Goodreads.
I enjoyed A Brief History of Montmaray quite a lot; I also thought it was a lovely stand-alone novel. So imagine my surprise to find out that the FitzOsbornes’ story continued in not only one sequel, but two! Of course I picked the sequel up as soon as I found it.
The FitzOsbornes in Exile is, like the first novel, written as Princess Sophia’s diary, which she keeps while her family is living in England after their tiny island kingdom of Montmaray is bombed by the Germans in 1937. Sophia and her cousin Veronica are presented in English society while her brother Toby attends Oxford. In the meantime, Europe creeps closer and closer to war.
I apologize in advance how long this review is going to be; my review of the first book was very short, so I suppose this makes up for it.
Good things about this book: Sophie’s still a pretty compelling narrator, especially now that she actually has things to do and people to interact with, and her observations can be charming at times. I like Cooper’s writing style well enough (it’s partially the sheer amount of it I had a problem with). She obviously had a grasp of the time period, too…well, the concretes of it, anyway. (Unfortunately, that wasn’t strictly a good thing.)
Major problems I had with this book:
a) Too much stuff, not enough space! My God, this book dragged, dragged, dragged. It was 450 pages long and covered almost two years, but very little actually seemed to happen to the FitzOsbornes themselves—you know, the characters I’m supposed to be invested in? The plot of your story? I know the middle book in a trilogy can drag, but they can also be tight and focused (as in Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels).
If I wanted to read about the history of Europe from 1937 to 1939, there is more than enough material out there from which I could choose. I should know, since I took three history classes in college which dealt with that time period. I wanted to read about Sophie’s adventures, not Sophie reading about German aggression, then making
annoyingly remarkably accurate predictions about the near future.
And even if I was supposed to remain invested in the characters, the story happened in vignettes. Sometimes months went by between
chapters Sophie’s diary entries, so very few events felt connected to each other. Despite how slow the entire novel was, it sometimes felt rushed, as if Cooper remembered she was supposed to get to September 1939 so that her next book could live up to its title (The FitzOsbornes at War)
b) Related to the first problem, was this fiction or not? (So. Much. Name-Dropping.)
I love historical fiction. It’s probably my favorite genre. However, while I definitely prefer that my historical fiction is historically accurate, I also like it to be heavy on the actual fiction.
In the first novel, I appreciated Michelle Cooper’s attempts to fit Montmaray into world history in small ways while still acknowledging that her minute and entirely fictional kingdom was fictional and as such, very nearly insignificant. But in that novel, the story—and the setting and the cast—were also small. It all worked well together because it was a very personal story. Montmaray may not matter to anyone else, but it matters to the handful of people who live there. Here, the Montmaravians feel small and insignificant (because they are). On top of that, it’s constantly “Hitler this” and “the evil Nazis that,” and it gets old very quickly.
Hitler himself never makes an appearance, though—which is nothing short of a miracle, considering all the other historical figures who do inexplicably interact with the family, including (but not limited to): King George VI of England, his wife and daughters (including the current Queen Elizabeth II); Joe Kennedy, Jr. and his more famous brother (JFK) and their sister Kathleen; Neville Chamberlain, and (I believe) Winston Churchill.
Almost all the people listed above were somehow portrayed negatively. Frankly, it pissed me off. (Well, JFK was a womanizer, so let’s portray his war-hero older brother as a perv! While we’re at it, let’s make Princess Margaret a little demon!) Just…ugh. No, Ms. Cooper.
“Try to avoid any mention of King Henry the Eighth if you can possibly help it—his family might still be a bit sensitive about Catherine Howard having an affair with our ancestor.”
Maybe I would have enjoyed this book more if I had known less about the time period. Substantially less. Probably almost nothing, honestly—because to me, Sophie seemed to divine everything that was about to happen even though she wasn’t privy to nearly as much information as, you know, the actual government.
I know that the Nazis are capable of anything, anything at all.
Ms. Cooper Sophie, we know that now, but I guarantee you, nobody in 1937 knew that they were capable of building death factories and systematically murdering 12 million people. Just because you, as the author, know what’s going to happen doesn’t mean your characters should, too.
c) Anachronisms everywhere. As if being constantly reminded that, “Hey, this is 1937!” wasn’t annoying enough, some of the characters and their worldviews (and the way Sophie and her friends reacted to those views) were also horribly anachronistic.
I don’t know, maybe plenty of people in 1937 were tolerant of radical feminist views. Maybe they really were willing to accept homosexuality (because, y’know, Oscar Wilde did it!). Maybe it was common to accept a newlywed woman cheating on her husband because he’s a bit dull. Now, Sophie & co. weren’t raised by strict/conservative (or really any parents), but I still don’t think they’d just say, “Hey, it’s okay to love who you love!” Some people in 2014 (particularly old people who were, I don’t know, growing up during the time this book is set) still can’t say that.
On the other hand, though, it is 1937, not 1700! No, Western society was not an egalitarian utopia—(hell, eugenics were still being practiced widely)—but for God’s sake, women were no longer nearly as oppressed as they had once been. They could vote and go to school (even college); and of course, lower- and middle-class women had already regularly held jobs for centuries.
But apparently, that isn’t enough for Veronica—because she would know all about female suffering, since she’s a. royal, b. breathtakingly beautiful, and therefore, c. expected to get married! Oh the humanity! Oh the pain! Oh the sexism! (Again: sexism was a problem in the 1930s, but to that extent? For a beautiful, rich, intelligent girl? I mean, for God’s sake, the heir to the British throne is a woman!) If you don’t believe me, here’s a selection of quotes on the subject:
“Discouraged from attending university, kept out of the professions, paid half a man’s wages even if we do take a menial job…”
“Isn’t it odd, the way males react to what are, after all, simply bits of flesh designed for feeding infants?”
“[Sex]’d have to be utterly blissful to make up for that mess….Of course, novels do seem to suggest it is blissful. Otherwise why would Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary have bothered with adultery?” “Weren’t both those characters invented by men? It could just be propaganda, to make girls want to get married.”
Ah, yes, what if Tolstoy had written Anna Karenina as propaganda for the patriarchy? And then Sophie says:
Virginia Woolf had been right, too—women weren’t making the decisions about war, about peace, about any of the really important issues in the world. Even though we, just as much as men, suffer the consequences when the decisions our leaders made turned out to be the wrong ones.
I really wanted to slap her silly. Of course, war hurts women in plenty of ways and given the extremely high civilian cost of World War II, I can almost buy this otherwise ridiculous statement (women may not have been in government at this time, but it’s absurd to think they had “no say” in world affairs, especially after they got the vote)—but World War II has not yet happened, and the lived experience of men in World War I was nothing short of horrific. Why don’t the FitzOsborne girls try to serve on the front lines? Then maybe they’d get a true idea of what it means to be hurt by war.
Seriously, every time Veronica opened her mouth, I knew I was going to roll my eyes. I don’t remember her being so intolerable in the first book…but in this one, she was like Hermione Granger from Hell and, as much as I love her, Hermione was already pretty annoying sometimes. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she happens to be stunningly gorgeous…but not at all interested in clothes or young men or anything of the kind! (Sophie’s sister Henry also grows up to be very pretty over the course of the novel, but she is—of course—is a stereotypical tomboy. Surprise.)
Veronica’s “Greatest Hits” (
mostly unrelated to women):
“Don’t say ‘Anschluss.’ It’s not a union, it’s an invasion.”
(By and large, the people of Austria—or at least of Vienna—welcomed German troops by lining the streets and cheering. Just saying. And apparently she speaks German now!)
“Well, it fell open to that idiotic Romeo and Juliet. And then the even more idiotic Taming of the Shrew. So I kept flipping pages until I came to something based on actual history.”
Bashing Shakespeare is so edgy!
“I simply recited to myself the names of all the British kings and queens, in chronological order, starting with Egbert…whenever I came to a new dynasty, I’d say out loud, ‘Gosh!’ or ‘Really?’ When I reached the House of Windsor…I did them all again, backwards, with the dates of their reigns.”
Veronica, what are you, a teenage girl or an encyclopedia? For fuck’s sake, am I really supposed to take that seriously? Sure, I can list out the British monarchs, too (mostly because I was a history major), but backwards by the dates of their reigns? I rolled my eyes so hard.
“And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he asked if I was a Catholic!” “Are you?” said Kick. “I didn’t know that!” “I most certainly am not!” said Veronica. “I’m an atheist!”
Yes, ladies and gents, this princess, raised in almost complete isolation in the 1920s and 30s with virtually no world experience is a radical feminist, a communist, and an atheist, and she proclaims these things loudly. Is it any wonder she got shot? Twice? Not that those were particularly impressive or convincing parts of the plot, either.
Meanwhile, Toby’s homosexuality is not only accepted as an only slightly problematic quirk, but he becomes very much a token gay character in this book. I’ve known a fair number of gay men in my life, and none of them were as terrible flibbertigibbets as Toby. It drove me crazy. Toby is pretty and he knows it; he’s somewhat effeminate, but all the girls who meet him want to
screw marry him. (Did I mention that he’s impossibly sweet and charming, too?) Oh, and the boy pines over is his own cousin (on whom also Sophie also happens to have a crush—of course!) Toby’s sexuality really begins to overshadow whatever personality he already had, and I found that especially frustrating.
Sophie herself was supposedly shy and plain and she’s never met more than twenty people in her entire life before moving to England, but also suddenly “Machiavellian”? Hey, don’t look at Michelle Cooper, she’s just trying to fill the demand for Strong Female Characters!
All of the characters seemed English. They’re even confused for English people by the Kennedys (those silly, ignorant Americans!). They’re accepted into English society without any effort on their parts. I kept forgetting they weren’t English myself.
To sum up: I, sadly, agree with another review in which the reviewer said they weren’t sure what they liked so much about the first book—the characters or the setting—until they read this one.
Hint: it’s the setting.
Removed from isolated, whimsical island kingdom of Montmaray that made the first novel so charming, The FitzOsbornes in Exile drags its feet. Its characters are reduced to one or two personality traits, and its plot is so all over the place that it seems non-existent. It’s not only the worst kind of middle book in a trilogy; it’s also one of the worst kinds of historical fiction.
I’m severely disappointed in Michelle Cooper, and my opinion of the first book has, unfortunately, also dropped a little, too. At this point, I may or may not suffer through the final book.