So, first off: that cover! How could you not wonder what is lurking in these pages? Is it a Christopher Pike-type horror novel? Is it a Lois Duncan-type supernatural thriller? It is neither (I think it can best be described as “Junior Gothic”), but it is in my estimation pretty much the perfect summer YA read. I had to restrain myself from pitching a tent in the courtyard and reading it by flashlight to get the full effect.
The Plot: 14-year old Alison Allbright lives with her family in the quaint English village of Sturridge Minster. Unlike most of her classmates, Allison comes a poor family: her father works for a direct mail house, her mother is “dull and dowdy” and her younger brother Keith is a lethargic nerd “who barely seemed to exist at all”.
Ostracized by her wealthy classmates, Alison constantly daydreams of a more glamorous life. While she has forged a tentative friendship with one of her rich classmates, Raine Lawlor, she retains the chip on her shoulder and the same time is weirdly possessive of Raine’s friendship. After being invited to a barbecue with the “boaty crowd” only as an afterthought, Alison tells Raine off in front of Mrs. Lawlor, permanently cementing her unpopularity.
The Allbrights don’t live on the wrong side of the tracks so much as right on top of the tracks: after Alison has a fight with her mother over how it is so dreadful to be poor, she storms out of the house and bides her time watching the passenger trains roll through her back garden. It is here that she sees a mysterious, glamorous woman in a first-class coach, locking eyes with her and staring her down as the train slows. We learn that the strange woman is the wealthy Mrs. Considine, returning from Switzerland, and “The lives of Alison and Mrs. Considine had touched. At a distance; through a glass; but they had touched.” FORESHADOWING!
The next day, Alison is even more down in the dumps after Raine’s barbecue is declared by her classmates to be “raveworthy”; she strolls into town, brooding over her station in life and daydreaming about how she would get back at everyone if her father “won a fortune in the football pools” (I do not know what that is). And now I present you with the most British sentence ever written for a YA novel:
“A little way along Ardington Road was a parade of shops which included a newsagent’s and a confectioner’s where Alison sometimes stopped to buy a lemon or orange drink if she had sufficient pocket-money.”
Newsagent! Confectioner! Pocket-money! I am easily out-poshed by the lowliest English schoolgirl. (Ardington Road!)
While inside the confectioner’s shop (!) buying her citrus-based beverage, Alison’s bicycle is run over by a Rolls-Royce. The apologetic chauffer immediately insists upon taking down her name and address and assures her that his employer will immediately replace the bicycle. When Alison arrives home with the news, her parents are working-class suspicious (dead common!) about the whole incident. Her parents are upset over the bicycle, and Alison unwisely chooses this as the time to remind them that she isn’t going on the school outing to a charity concert in the park because GAWD, WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE SO POOR AND STUFF? Keith unhelpfully reminds her that he doesn’t get to go to the concert either and he didn’t even have a bike to get run over in the first place.
Alison is vindicated when she arrives home from school the next afternoon to find the Rolls Royce, the chauffer, and his employer, who is of course Mrs. Considine, waiting for her. Mrs. Considine presents Alison with a brand new bike with all the trimmings. Mrs. Considine smoothly invites herself in for tea, and even more smoothly learns that Alison will be missing out on the concert outing. She offers to take Alison herself. Pride wounded at being caught by their betters living in a train yard, the Albrights refuse to allow Alison to go… but Alison manages to cut the Rolls Royce off at the pass, so to speak, and convinces Mrs. Considine that her parents totally changed their minds.
Alison starts to notice that things are a little off when Saturday comes and Mrs. Considine drives her to the concert, and insists that Alison not let any of her classmates know that she is at the concert with her. Alison agrees, quickly forgetting how odd the request is, as she is “sitting in the very best seats- with chocolates and ice creams and drinks constantly pressed upon her” while her classmates are out somewhere in “the cheaper seats and buying refreshments from stalls where they had to queue up” like common Irish laborers!
On the ride home, Mrs. Considine gets Alison to confess that she is there against her parents’ wishes and without their knowledge, she is “reproachful” but smoothes things over with her parents, managing to drop that she had been at school with Lady Pownell of Bransome Park. Mrs. Considine tells them that she was so keen to take Alison because she reminded her so much of her own daughter, who is at boarding school in Switzerland:
“‘Yes,’ she said, almost as if speaking to herself, ‘my daughter’s all I have now. I’m divorced, you see. My husband and I separated a few years ago. I’m afraid we didn’t get on.’”
I’m afraid we didn’t get on! So proper! So ambiguous, yet foreboding!
Alison is invited to spend the following Saturday at Rosewilder, Mrs. Considine’s lakeside estate, where she will hang out with Michael, the Chauffer, and his wife Anne, the housekeeper, who will teach her to sail and ride ponies.
At Rosewilder, Alison sees a portrait of Mrs. Considine’s absent daughter, Camilla, who bears a striking resemblance to Alison. And then Mrs. Considine starts acting weird and wants Alison to wear Camilla’s clothes:
“‘Surely you’d like that, wouldn’t you?’ she coaxed. ‘When you come here I’d like you to put on Camilla’s things and treat her wardrobe exactly like your own. You can put on your own things again when you leave. Wouldn’t you find that fun?’”
Uh, sure, yeah sounds fun…
Then Mrs. Considine keeps “accidentally” calling Alison by her daughter’s name:
“‘I’m calling you ‘Ca’ again,’ said Mrs. Considine, still laughing. ‘That’s what I always call my daughter. I’m bound to do that because you’re so like her. You don’t mind if I call you ‘Ca’ while you’re here, do you?’”
Well, no, I guess not…
Any misgivings Alison might have had vanish when Mrs. Considine invites Alison to accompany her to Italy on the spring-term holiday. Also, when Alison arrives home after dinner she finds her father asleep in the middle of the kitchen floor: “It definitely lowered the tone of the place”.
In Italy Mrs. Considine goes a step further when, with a new hairdo and wardrobe, she successfully passes Alison off as the real Camilla. Upon their return, Mrs. Considine takes Alison to gate-crash her classmates’ weekly barbecue and is again successful in introducing Alison as Camilla, even to Alison’s onetime friend Raine. When it is finally time for Alison to return home, it is clear that Mrs. Considine has taken things too far:
‘What would Camilla think of this?’ Allison asked.
‘You are Camilla,’ replied Mrs. Considine.
‘No, I mean the real one, your daughter-’
‘You are the real one,’
‘No, the other one, the proper one whose picture’s by the bed-’
‘Ca, you must stop this. You are the only Camilla. There is no other. It is your picture by the bed.’
‘Now please be quiet, Ca. You must go back to those people for a few days, but then you will come home again.’
During the time that Alison is returned to the bosom of those people, she is summoned by Michael the Chauffer, who is clearly worried about the role he has played in Mrs. Considine’s scheme, including deliberately running over Alison’s bike so Mrs. Considine would have an excuse to meet her. He reveals to Alison what the reader is starting to suspect: the real Camilla Considine is dead; killed in tragic accident on a remote Swiss mountain road when her mother came to bring her home from boarding school against her will. He urges Alison to call Mrs. Considine and tell her that her parents have forbidden her from returning to Rosewilder and to ever see her again. Alison, weighing her options, instead calls Mrs. Considine and rats out Michael and Anne for filling her in on the ruse.
Gleeful at now being the only Camilla in Mrs. Considine’s life, the following Saturday Alison lies to her parents that she is going swimming and sets out for Rosewilder, where Mrs. Considine has planned an elaborate homecoming party for her “daughter”. Alison plays the role of Camilla to the hilt, reveling in turning away her enemies who try to crash the party, making her crush-slash-tormentor squirm with nervousness, and taking Raine into her confidence. At “Camilla’s” urging, Raine tells her what she really thinks of that Alison Albright, and Alison learns that her classmates find her sullen, snobby, and overly possessive.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Considine’s gears are turning, as she takes Alison’s bike and bag of beach gear and plants them on a deserted beach at the lake.
The next morning Raine calls Rosewilder with the breathless news that Alison Albright is missing and the police are searching the lake for her body. Mrs. Considine is very insistent that she personally arrange a memorial service for Alison. When Alison’s father shows up in search of answers, she successfully passes off Alison as Camilla even to her own family and is apologetic when explaining that Alison and “Camilla” didn’t get along after the latter’s return from Switzerland.
After Alison gets to relish attending her own funeral, however, things stop being fun at Rosewilder. Michael and Anne were fired after Alison ratted them out, so the estate is becoming unkempt. Mrs. Considine refuses to allow Alison to have friends over, insisting that they need time “just for the two of us”. They take no trips into town, surviving on food from the deep-freeze.
After Mrs. Considine starts showing flashes of a terrible temper and begins locking Alison in at night, Alison starts to question if the real Camilla’s accident went down as described or if her mother had a hand in her daughter’s death. Finally, Alison has had enough and decides to escape.
Waiting until Mrs. Considine retires for the night, Alison sets off to town, but finds that the gate for the massive wall surrounding the estate has been locked, making escape by the lake her only option. Mrs. Considine has locked up the boats, so Alison starts out to swim across, leading to really rather terrifying scene as Mrs. Considine discovers her missing and comes after her, as Alison fights her way through the mud on the bottom, alternately attempting to swim and wade as Mrs. Considine gains on her. Being a poor swimmer is what made Alison’s disappearance believable in the first place, and she is starting to drown as Mrs. Considine finally closes in…
Alison regains consciousness on an island in the middle of the lake with Raine and her brother Keith, who had come by boat to “investigate” what was really going on at Rosewilder and got lost in the darkness. Mrs. Considine’s body is found, drowned, the next morning.
Alison is returned to her family, but the ending is left tantalizingly ambiguous: how are her family and friends going to deal with her reappearance? What really happened to the real Camilla? Did Mrs. Considine rescue Alison before she drowned herself? Is I’m afraid we didn’t get on British for totally murdered?
This book rates high in every category that makes an excellent summer read for 13-year old girls: 1. Spookiness 2. Britishness 3. Glamorous new life with chiffon dressing gowns 4. Fantasizing about really teaching everyone a lesson about how sorry they’ll be after you’re dead.
The only way it could possibly be improved (if your neighborhood isn’t overrun with feral cats) (curse you, Ridgewood!), is to grab a tent, flashlight, and add this one to the stack of paperbacks when you head out for some backyard camping!
Terrible Name For A Restaurant Department: The Stewpot
The British Come Up With Superior Insults Department: Alison’s nickname in school is “Breezy”, after her classmates shorten it from the sarcastic “(all)Bright’n Breezy”.
Dream Casting Inside My Head Department: Joan Crawford as Mrs. Considine!