Ashton Park is book one in The Danforths of Lancashire series by Murray Pura. Following in the tradition of the popular PBS series, Downton Abbey, this family saga delves into the lives of William and Elizabeth Danforth, their seven children, and the Ashton Park staff. Spanning the years from 1916 to 1923, Ashton Park follows the upstairs/downstairs characters through the dangers of war and affairs of the heart.
Among the green hills and trees of Lancashire, only a few miles from the sea, lies the beautiful and ancient estate of Ashton Park. The year is 1916. The First World War has engulfed Europe and Sir William’s and Lady Elizabeth’s three sons are all in uniform—and their four daughters are involved in various pursuits of the heart and soul. As the head of a strong Church of England family for generations, Sir William insists the Danforth estate hold morning devotions that include both family and staff. However, he is also an MP and away at Westminster in London whenever Parliament is sitting. During his long absences, Lady Elizabeth discreetly spends time in the company of the head cook of the manor, Mrs. Longstaff, who is her best friend and confidante. This friendship includes visits to a small Baptist church in Liverpool that exposes Lady Elizabeth to a less formal approach to Christian worship and preaching than she is used to and which she comes to enjoy.
This was a very ambitions book in my opinion, and I'm not sure how successful it was. There were a lot of characters, which I was able to keep straight thanks to a two-page character description at the beginning. There were several interesting themes: World War I, Ireland's struggle for independence, romance outside of class lines, pressure to show loyalty to the Church of England - even an "evil" maid. I liked the British setting and the fact that this is a family saga, but several things seemed to work against its success.
The story was told from numerous point of views, which became confusing to me. Scene changes were abrupt, often lacking proper setup. For example, one scene ends with a bombing raid in Dover and the next scene opens ten months later, with no explanation of all that happened. Time lapses weren't always clear. The plot of Danforth children falling in love with commoners was unrealistically repeated and resolved in the same way. And in almost seven years of wartime fighting, no Danforth child was injured.
But the main disappointment for me was a lack of character depth. I never connected with the family or staff, never felt I knew them, and therefore couldn't care about them. This first novel might have worked better with less characters and more room for development.
I do believe that Murray's writing shows promise, though. Some of the problems I've mentioned may be due to the fact that I was reading a pre-publication manuscript. Hopefully, the final edition will be much more polished. In spite of these shortcomings, I was hooked on the storyline throughout.
While I liked certain aspects of this novel, I didn't find it to be a satisfying read overall. Readers who enjoy British historical fiction might find it interesting, though. The next book in this series, Beneath the Dover Sky, releases in August 2013.
This book was provided by Harvest House through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.