‘The Valentine House’ by Emma Henderson is set in the French Alps at Arete, a large chalet built by Sir Anthony Valentine in the late nineteenth century and used as a summer house by the family across several generations. In 1914, Mathilde, a local girl from the valley, is selected by Sir Anthony’s wife Lady Charlotte to work as a servant at Arete on account of her being one of the ‘uglies’ and therefore less likely to catch Sir Anthony’s wandering eye. Mathilde gradually becomes acquainted with the quirks of this strange English family until she is betrayed by Sir Anthony’s granddaughter Daisy. Decades later in 1976, Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson George is visiting Arete with his cousins, continuing many of the Valentine traditions such as the outdoor physical challenges known as ‘paideia’. With Mathilde’s help, they finally uncover the mystery surrounding the fate of Sir Anthony’s daughter Margaret.
‘The Valentine House’ is Henderson’s second novel and is something of a departure from her Orange Prize shortlisted debut ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ which is set in a 1950s mental institution. Henderson reveals in the author’s note that her latest novel was inspired by a real chalet built in the Alps by British judge and mountaineer Sir Alfred Wills in 1858. The atmosphere and description of the Alpine setting is certainly evocative and the novel as a whole is beautifully written and carefully crafted.
‘The Valentine House’ has a dual narrative – alternating between events during the early 20th century narrated by Mathilde and the later years focusing on George – with the two strands eventually converging. There are a lot of characters to keep track of but I can see why the inclusion of a family tree wasn’t really possible due to the nature of the revelations towards the end of the story. Despite the complexity of the structure, the plot itself and the way in which the family’s secrets are unravelled isn’t especially remarkable. Instead, it is the picturesque setting and Mathilde’s characterisation in particular which are the main attractions of ‘The Valentine House’ and once I had got my head around who is related to who, the second half really grew on me.
I would definitely recommend ‘The Valentine House’ to those who enjoy historical fiction or family sagas and I think it would be a good escapist read for the approaching summer holiday. Many thanks to Sceptre for sending me a review copy.