Passing Bells, Book 1
Author: Phillip Rock
Publisher: William Morrow
Source: Publisher via TLC Book Tours
Description from Goodreads:
Before Downton Abbey, there was Abingdon Pryory, the elegant country home of the Grevilles—a titled English family who, along with their servants, see their world turned upside down when England goes to war. Once their well-kept lawns and whirling social seasons give way to the horrors of World War I, no one, upstairs or downstairs, is left untouched. For fans of sweeping historical fiction, the reissue of Phillip Rock's New York Times bestseller The Passing Bells is a breathtaking family saga not to be missed.
First Sentence: "The dawn came early, tinting a cloudless sky the palest shade of green."
First published in 1978, The Passing Bells has gotten a new lease on life, thanks to the popularity of the BBC show Downton Abbey. As you can see from the description, this book is being marketed as similar to Downton, and, thankfully, there is some truth in that. However, the focus in The Passing Bells is much more on history than on romantic drama. The Passing Bells reads more like Herman Wouk's Winds of War in a Downton-like setting.
The Passing Bells gets off to a rather slow start, introducing the myriad characters, but not delving too deeply to any one of them. This portion before the war is most reminiscent of Downton Abbey, but was also my least favorite part, because it lacked drama to pull me in and I did not yet know the characters well enough to be more than mildly interested in them. Given the 500+ pages in the book, I feared I might regret my decision to be on the tour for all three novels in this series, but, thankfully, the novel picked up for me about 150 pages in.
In Downton Abbey, WWI happens largely off-screen, and it's over quite quickly. The show races through history, but Rock lingers. He does not gloss over the war or keep the perspective more on the romances. He also shows off more of the dark side of war, which may have been his goal in composing the series. Rock highlights this time period as the turning point in England from the time of the landed estates to a more modern sensibility.
The Passing Bells encompasses the whole of WWII, with an emphasis on the first couple years of the conflict. The characters in The Passing Bells have roles in the war that range from soldier to nurse to doctor to journalist to living a slightly reduced life back in England. There's a great scope of British experiences during the war, all done very well. If you love historical fiction about World War I, The Passing Bells is a must read.
Rock develops a good cast of characters, some of whom are even reminiscent of characters in Downton Abbey, like Lydia who reminds me a lot of Lady Mary at her most scheming. I do wish there were more of an even focus on the female characters. The men receive a lot more attention than the women, who mostly appear only in relation to the male characters. The book does pass the Bechdel test, but only just barely.
Rock's The Passing Bells is a family drama of large scope that poses serious questions about the nature of modern warfare. History fans will not want to miss this. I am looking forward to reading the next installment of the trilogy quite soon.
Favorite Quote: "'Ever first novelist feels that the story of his life and his family is a world-shaking event that simply screams for print. I went through that stage myself, Martin. I was twelve at the time, and I suddenly noticed something that perhaps you have noted yourself—that I simply do not look at all like my father. Well, I began to ponder on that and reached the febrile conclusion that I was the result of a liaison between my mother and the King of Spain. Then, filled with plans for an epic saga of my first twelve years on earth, about the little English Jew who was in reality a bastard claimant to a Catholic throne, I went browsing in the attic and found a trunk. In that trunk were tintypes of my father and his long-dead sister, Rose. I was exactly like her, a carbon copy of the poor departed dear.'"