The action opens with the auction of a painting in 1887 and then switches to 1954 as a girl sits on a doorstep. Cynthia is 11 and aware of her mother’s demands for good behaviour combined with initiative, knowing she is a disappointment. So when a parcel is wrongly delivered, she shows independence by taking it to the house opposite. There she meets a new neighbour, Rebecca Hatfield. Cynthia doesn’t go home again.
This is a tale of immortality and time travel. Where immortality means you can still die, of illness or accident, and time travel comes via a large mysterious clock owned by Miss Hatfield. Cynthia – and it is key that we are told her original name only a few times – drinks a glass of lemonade containing a drop of a mysterious substance and everything changes. “I felt as if I was slipping away into some strange dimension where I recognized nothing – not my surroundings, or my feelings, but most terrifyingly of all, not even myself.” Miss Hatfield has a task for Cynthia to do, a task which involves theft and time travel. The task, of course, does not go to plan.
The fine detail is excellent but I found the bigger picture lacking, as if the author was carried away by Cynthia/Margaret’s flirtation with Henley and lost sight of the where this fit into the flow of the narrative. I was impatient for the mystery to move on. Cynthia/Margaret is a girl things happen to, rather than her being a proactive heroine. She spends quite a lot of time waiting for the time to be right, waiting for things to settle down, before she can complete her task. I just wanted her to get on with it. She accepts her new life with minimal heartache or disbelief, demonstrates little longing for her parents and the life she left in 1954 and no cynicism about what Miss Hatfield tells her. She ages instantly from teenager to adult, but we are shown none of the insight this would bring as so ably demonstrated in the film Big. Then I did a bit of Googling and found out that Anna Caltabiano [above] is 17, and I understood. When I read a book for review, I read with a notebook and pen by my side and quite early on I wrote down ‘feels like a young author?’ Despite the ‘literary’ front cover, this is a book written by a teenager for teenagers about young love. If I had known, I would not have chosen to read it and I became a bit more forgiving of the writing style. Another example of a cover design being misleading.
That this novel was written by a 17-year old is admirable and explains the style: lots of explanation of the action of the ‘I understood Henley did this because…’ style. Lots of re-stating the obvious, which should have been edited out. It is clear that Caltabiano was in love with Henley.
This is the first novel of a trilogy. I think I’m too old to read the others, it’s a long time since I was a teenager. But if you know one who likes stories about puppy love combined with time travel, they’ll probably love this. Caltabiano is a talented writer and I will watch out for future novels, but in a few years’ time.
For Anna Caltabiano’s website, click here.
‘The Seventh Miss Hatfield’ by Anna Caltabiano [pub in the UK on Jul 31, 2014 by Gollancz]