After Aunt Dimity Down Under, there was nowhere for the series to go but up, was there? Thankfully, that turned out to have been true. Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree is a breath of fresh air clearing the stench of the previous book from my nostrils. Don't get me wrong: it's not a world-beater. It still has many of the flaws inherent in the Dimity series as a whole, but at least it excised the unique flaws of the previous book. Nancy Atherton has redeemed herself - this one's a keeper, at least relatively speaking.
The most eligible bachelor in the sleepy English village of Finch, William Willis Sr, happens to also be the father-in-law of one Lori Shepherd. Recently returned from New Zealand, she is helping her father-in-law renovate and move in to one of the more storied (yet rundown) estates in the village. No end of elderly widows and spinsters would gladly help him as well (it sounds life-shortening to be a man in Finch). Part of the renovations includes restoring a soot-covered painting that looks to be a family tree of some sort. What secrets about the estate might it contain? The matter becomes even more intriguing when the piece is stolen from the local art restorer's house. With William and his newly hired staff, Declan and Deirdre Donovan, fending off the widows, it falls to Lori to figure out what's going on.
Excellent! Who would have thought there would be an actual mystery in an Aunt Dimity book? It's not the most interesting one, but at least Finchís resident busybody needs to do a little detective legwork to figure something out. While most of the answers are as obvious as the skull and crossbones on a pirate flag, itís still good to see.
One of the problems with Aunt Dimity Down Under was that Lori left Finch to gallivant around New Zealand. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but with the bunch of quirky and fun characters back in Finch, you'd better create something just as good when you leave it. Atherton didn't manage that.
This time the entire book is set in Finch. While the characters are fairly stereotypical (the old women who have to poke their noses in everything and keep an eagle eye on the village, the woman who thinks she should be running the village, etc.), at least they're fun. Surprisingly, through the secondary story of longtime Finch resident Sally Pyne's woeful story, a couple of these characters actually get a hint of depth.
Yes, there is a secondary story in Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree. Sally Pyne has returned from a trip to Mexico, and it appears she met a young man there. She pretended to be a rich woman and had the time of her life. Now he's come to Finch to see her, and Lori has to set up an enormous charade to fool the young man and keep Sally from the prying eyes of her fellow villagers, whose gossip would ruin her if they found out. William lets Sally use his house and pretend its hers so she can entertain her man - and hopefully make sure he doesn't come back.
This story isn't nearly as interesting, so of course it takes up the majority of the book, often elbowing aside Lori's suspicions about William's new servants and strange events going on at the Willis house. Though this subplot is also as predictable as rain when the sky is black with clouds, it does feature a few good moments. I loved how they tried to drive the young man's opinion of Sally downward by serving him the worst of British cuisine.
Once again, Aunt Dimity really doesn't do much, though the charade idea is hers. She acts more like a sounding board for Lori than anything else. I do wish Atherton would find something more interesting for her to do. Thatís not likely, since Dimity is dead (she communicates with Lori via ghostly writing in a journal); for her to do anything interesting, somebody else would have to die, too. That can't happen in an Aunt Dimity book!
Sadly, as usual, nobody is bad in an Aunt Dimity book. Everything is nice and rosy, so much so that you wonder why Lori ever doubts anybody. Even when things look bad, it turns out well. Nobody is a bad person; they may have a secret to hide, but it's not a bad secret - no real skeletons in the closet. Just once, I'd like to see somebody do something because they're a scumbag, not out of some altruistic motive that they just choose not to tell anybody about.
I guess that will never happen.
Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree brings us back to the characters and setting that Aunt Dimity fans love. I quite enjoyed the book, although whether that's because of how bad the previous book was, I don't know. Even knowing everything would turn out all right, I did enjoy the journey to that point. Lori is her typical self. If you enjoy her, you'll enjoy this book. If you find her cloying and annoying, then you probably stopped reading this series long ago. She hasn't changed at all.
For some people, that's a good thing.