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Falling Angels    by Tracy Chevalier order for
Falling Angels
by Tracy Chevalier
Order:  USA  Can
Plume, 2002 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Tracy Chevalier has accomplished the impossible. She has written a second book as good, or better than, her excellent first novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring. That story took place in the Dutch artist Vermeer's 17th century home and studio, while this new one is set in Edwardian England. Although the settings differ, both books resonate with the feelings and thoughts of characters, especially the important female players, which are skillfully brought to life by the author. Unlike the previous work, Falling Angels is told from multiple third person viewpoints, so that the reader becomes intimately aware of how each is feeling.

At the center of the story are Lavinia Waterhouse and Maude Coleman, with their respective families. When the book opens on the day of Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901, the girls meet at the cemetery where all respectable Londoners have gone to pay their respects. Lavinia and Maude are six years old and, in the way of children that age, immediately become best friends. Also at the cemetery, the grave-digger's son Simon (the same age as the girls) befriends them both. Chevalier has created wonderful portraits of the thoughtful and intelligent but rather plain Maude, and the pretty but silly and self-centered Lavinia. In addition we meet their parents, Kitty and Richard Coleman and Trudy and Albert Waterhouse. The girls do not meet again for two years, when the Waterhouses move into the house backing on the Coleman garden and the friendship blooms.

The girls' mothers, on the other hand, are not soul-mates. Kitty Coleman is a well-educated woman for whom the constrictions of an Edwardian lady's life bind tightly, and she has become depressed at the lack of purpose in her life. Trudy Waterhouse, however, is quite happy in her role as mother to Lavinia and her younger sister Ivy Mae. As the years pass Kitty and her husband Richard have grown further apart, and she forms a relationship with another man. As might be expected in this time period, there are very serious consequences. Then, through a chance encounter, Kitty meets an enthusiastic suffragette and suddenly finds a reason and meaning for her life. However, these changes are not well-received by her family and things do not go well.

The book allows us to watch the families interact and change over the years through both minor and major domestic dramas. However, this is much more than the usual family saga. The author skillfully makes the reader feel the emotions that are involved in the characters' lives and to really care about what happens to them. The cemetery plays an important role in the book. It is where the girls go to play freely with Simon and to escape the routines of home. Through the differences in the lives of Simon and the girls we learn about the class system in Edwardian London. The title itself comes from the angel on top of the Waterhouse grave monument, and also reflects the changes in Kitty's life as the book progresses. It is at the cemetery that the story ends on the day of King Edward's funeral in 1910. Just as these royal funerals form a bookend for the Edwardian era, they also mark key moments in the lives of the Coleman and Waterhouse families.

Chevalier is reportedly now writing a book about the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries which hang in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. As one who has both seen these beautiful artworks and has loved the author's other two books, I am eagerly awaiting the new novel.

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