Tracy Chevalier's Falling Angels chronicles two very different families set amid the social upheaval of the first decade of the twentieth century. Opening on the very day of Queen Victoria's death, the novel, told from myriad points of view, tells a heartbreaking tale of the dichotomy of tradition and progress, custom and novelty.
The Waterhouses, marked by their strong adherence to tradition and custom, are continually appalled by the progressive attitudes and behavior of the Colemans, particularly the strikingly beautiful and wistful Kitty Coleman. Though the families are at odds over the decoration of their family plots, the two daughters, Maude and Lavinia become fast friends, forging a bond with each other, as well as the grave diggers son Simon. When the families become neighbors, the dichotomy between their households becomes even more apparent. Eventually the two families are bound by scandalous secrets, particularly among the women of each family. When Kitty Coleman finds contentment by joining the suffragette movement, both families are similarly appalled, each objecting to her newfound independence and radical views. A rally in Hyde Park becomes a horrifying turning point for both families, resulting in a tragedy that forges an even deeper rift between them, yet binds them together somehow.
The novel is foremost an excellent examination of tradition versus progress, particularly from a female perspective. Its emphasis upon the customs of mourning is distinctly female, marked by subtle degrees and shades of variation. The novel wonderfully describes the circumscribed and sheltered life of many women at the time, as well as some of the terrifying consequences when they stray
beyond those bounds (particularly in the case of Kitty Coleman). The two young daughters remain at the center of this struggle, each dealing with it in their own way, growing closer together and further apart over the span of the book. There is, finally, a deep sense of societal progression in the novel, both in the women's movement and in society as a whole.
Chevalier's use of multiple points of view only increases the book's emotional texture, allowing us to glimpse events through very different filters. Each narrator has a distinct voice, each weaving into the other with a great level of intensity. As a novel both skillfully crafted and emotionally riveting, Falling Angels is a must-read.