Tuesday, August 01, 2000

Pilcher fans will find comfort in new novel

By Ann Hicks
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Elfrida Phipps enjoyed many years in the theater before retiring and moving from London to the tiny Hampshire village of Dibton.

        She has led a wild life, on the stage and off. She's had lots of boyfriends (and husbands). She still dyes her hair strawberry blond (“a blaze of flame”), applies layers of blue eye shadow and paints her lips scarlet. She says looking bizarre boosts her confidence.

        One of the first people she meets in Dibton is Oscar Blundell. A choirmaster and organist by profession, he and his wife include Elfrida in many social gatherings. Instantly taken with Oscar, Elfrida admits she's “past the age when her heart leapt for joy,” nevertheless she is always pleased to see him.

        Elfrida and Oscar are two of the characters whose stories unfold in Winter Solstice, the new novel by Rosamunde Pilcher. We also meet:

        • Carrie Sutton: The daughter of Elfrida's cousin Jeffrey, Carrie recently left a good job in Austria after her affair with a married man ended badly. She and Elfrida always have been close.

        • Lucy Wesley: Carrie's sweet-natured, 14-year-old niece who leads a joyless life with her divorced mother (Carrie's sister) and grandmother (Jeffrey's ex-wife) in London.

        • The about to be divorced and homeless (his word) Sam Howard. He has been sent by his company to Buckly, in the very north of Scotland, to restart an old woolen mill.

        The story takes place over several months with many twists and turns, some tragic.

        Through a set of bizarre circumstances, these five people end up in a “large, square undistinguished Victorian dwelling” in the middle of the little Scottish town of Creagan. It's less than two weeks until Christmas (and the Winter Solstice).

        Oscar and Elfrida are the first to arrive, Oscar having spent his boyhood summers on a nearby estate. Carrie asks Elfrida if she may come to Creagan and bring Lucy. (Lucy's mother intends to spend the holidays in Florida with her American boyfriend, and Lucy does not want to go along.) Sam is house hunting and has obtained a key to the Creagan dwelling.

        A heavy snowstorm changes everyone's plans.

        A David Wilkie painting, Elfrida's insurance against a rainy day; Major Billicliffe, an elderly widower; and a dog called Horace also figure in the story.

        Ms. Pilcher, one of Scotland's beloved authors, is probably best known for her 1987 book The Shell Seekers. Winter Solstice is her first book since 1995's Coming Home.

        Like her other books, Winter Solstice is charming. Chapters skip from character to character; all the while the story unfolds. Because the author allows readers deep inside her characters, after a few chapters we know a lot about them and learn their innermost thoughts. How Elfrida really feels about Oscar. Carrie's heartbreak. Sam's bewilderment at his failed marriage. Lucy's chapters are written in diary form.

        Pilcher fans have waited five years for this novel. Rest assured, like her other books, this one is as comfortable as a favorite tweed jacket.


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