Where fancy is bred

This is my review of The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon.

In this sequel to "The Crimson Rooms", we encounter again Evelyn, the determined young woman who flouted convention after the First World War to train as a solicitor in London. Set against the background of the 1926 General Strike, a damp squib of an event which may account for its somewhat wooden treatment here, the book's compelling quality comes from the author's ability to create a sense of period and place and develop the main characters as Evelyn is caught up in a couple of cases which illustrate the abuse of two women at very different levels in society. In particular, we understand Evelyn's changing moods, the poignancy of the continual reminders of the brother killed in the war, to whom she was deeply attached, and her dilemma as to whether, learning from her grandmother's experience, she should be ruled by her passionate heart or her pragmatic head, by physical attraction or a sense of trust and respect when it comes to choosing a partner. It seems too much of a coincidence that Evelyn's former lover Nicholas appears on the scene only to become involved in the two main cases on which Evelyn is working, but this is of course necessary for the plot.

This story treads a fine line between romantic and literary fiction, which may leave dissatisfied both categories of mostly likely female reader. It is well-written with a sound structure, but I have a few reservations. Although the exchanges in court are gripping, I was surprised by the conversational way prosecution and defence are allowed to interrupt each other. Even more so, whether in a paternity case held in camera or during interviews with Evelyn, the main parties seem remarkably willing to speak frankly about intimate matters without the kind of embarrassed prevarication one would expect. Regardless of social position, gender or personality, the characters tend to speak with the same voice. The way so many strangers seem to know about Evelyn's aborted love affair with Nicholas and feel free to comment on it also seems unlikely. Evelyn's nervous and demanding mother undergoes a rather rapid personality change.

I may have missed something but realise that I do not understand the choice of title. The current front cover of a 1920s vamp with come-hither blue eyes, whose cigarette should surely be in a holder, also gives a false and trivialising impression of the book.

Despite these points, I recommend this as a "good read" with an ending sufficiently open to pave the way for yet another novel on Evelyn, part blue-stocking, part unconscious femme fatale.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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