In the early days of Hitler’s rise to power, Elise Landau is sent via London to the Southern coastal House at Tyneford to work as a parlor maid, a position she views as far below her social status. Her Austrian family have been shattered:
her sister, Margot, has immigrated to California while her beloved parents, Anna and Julian, are left behind in Vienna, anxiously waiting for the exit visa that will bring them freedom.
Meanwhile, Elise spends her days working in domestic service, indentured to the head of the house, Christopher Rivers. A self-made man descended from an ancient and fine family, Rivers is preoccupied with making sure
that his son, Kit, will marry wisely. But he's also pleasant and diligent, and when he discovers that Elise's father is a famous Viennese author, he treats her with a newfound respect.
A stranger in a strange land, Elise lies in the dark of night on a narrow bed in her attic room, twisting her wet plait round her arm
and sobbing herself to sleep, dizzy with homesickness. Under the stern direction of housekeeper Mrs. Ellsworth, Elise must scrub and polish and hurry between chores. The act of cleaning must never be seen while the officious butler, Mr. Wrexham, fixes her with a look of cold displeasure as he instructs her to serve tea to the gentlemen on the terrace.
Winding an emotional path that leads her heroine into the arms of her one true love, Solomons gives us an affecting portrait of a young girl humbled by circumstance. A girl used to watching glittering ladies dancing at Vienna’s opera ball, Elise is transfixed by the house party for Kit’s twenty-first birthday.
She proceeds to make a critical error of judgment, her body tingling with anticipation that she can finally be like one of them.
Writing with a poet's eye for detail, Solomons frames her story around the notion of social class and the ways in which one can try to transcend it.
As with much else in the story, this notion lends meaning to Elise’s journey. “You're not one of us, you don’t fit. In a house like this everyone has it’s place,” remarks poker-faced Mr. Wrexham, his reaction encapsulating everything that is different about Elise.
When the whispers of war build to a cacophony, eventually "spinning into a hurricane,” the first passion of true love begets tragedy.
Flashes of sloping fields, the sounds of the hilltop wind, and a white lantern of moon become a deeply symbolic reflection of how adrift Elise is in this very English, aristocratic world.
Like Alice through the looking glass, Elise falls into a topsy-turvy life where “everything looks the same but
was the other way around." Margot's anxious letters begging for information about their parents gnaw at Elise, fueling her growing sense of unease. Whether writing about Elise and Kit's burgeoning love or Rivers' tender-hearted ministrations, Solomons does a fine job of creating a sense of how a well-managed and carefully manicured life can suddenly disintegrate.
Shackled with the power of music and written in the style of memoir, Solomons' story is chiefly about Elise's extraordinary resilience: “This was not the life or love I had expected, but it was love all the same.”
We finally come to see how Elise views her past as her life shifts key, rushing towards her final pivotal movement, whether she’s ready for it or not.