Friday, December 2, 2016

'The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill' by Julie Klassen


First Series from Bestselling Author Julie Klassen!

On a rise overlooking the Wiltshire countryside stands the village of Ivy Hill. Its coaching inn, The Bell, is its lifeblood--along with the coach lines that stop there daily, bringing news, mail, travelers, and much-needed trade.

Jane Bell lives on the edge of the inn property. She had been a genteel lady until she married the charming innkeeper who promised she would never have to work in his family's inn. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Jane finds herself The Bell's owner, and worse, she has three months to pay a large loan or lose the place.

Feeling reluctant and ill-equipped, Jane is tempted to abandon her husband's legacy and return to her former life of ease. However, she soon realizes there is more at stake than her comfort. But who can she trust to help her? Her resentful mother-in-law? Her husband's brother, who wanted the inn for himself? Or the handsome newcomer with secret plans of his own . . . ?

With pressure mounting from the bank, Jane struggles to win over naysayers and turn the place around. Can Jane bring new life to the inn, and to her heart as well?

Genre: Historical fiction, Christian and secular, with romance and mystery.

Julie Klassen is known as a Regency romance author, but it's a stretch to call this one. It's more like a village chronicle. These can be really engaging if written well, but tend to get a bit slow and rambling if the author isn't careful. This one is terrific. Julie Klassen nailed it. I could imagine every moment playing out as one of those TV series we all look forward to relaxing in front of.

There's so much going on, but the main framework is the friction between two key characters, Jane Bell and her mother-in-law, Thora. Jane has reluctantly inherited the village Inn from her husband John, who died in a tragic accident. Thora can't help feeling resentful, since Jane was brought up as a gentlewoman, and has no business experience. She hates relinquishing the reins of her family pride to somebody who may well let everything fall apart. And Jane finds that Thora makes her edgy and nervous.

It's discovered that John had recently taken out a huge loan, but nobody can see where he poured the money, or find whatever he might have left over. (That's the mystery!) They have to pull together if they want to save the Inn, let alone live in harmony. This includes Thora's unscrupulous younger son, Patrick. And meanwhile, entrepreneur James Drake is snooping around with plans to set up a flash rival hotel nearby.

At first I thought a lot of the novel focuses on business rather than relationships, until I saw that they're so tightly woven together, the relationships wouldn't be what they were without business pressure molding them. Since there's such a large cast of characters, there are a couple of admirers for both women. They all seem like pretty worthy contenders, and I was happy just to wait for it to unfold, since romance isn't a major feature of the novel.

I love how the story shines a sort of feminist message in a really gentle and powerful way, just because of how things were back then. All the unfairness is shown and not told. Rachel Ashford is turfed out of her family home after her father's death, because properties were always entailed to distant male relatives. Thora has formed pessimistic views about marriage, some from experience, since all a woman's property would instantly become her husband's. Most revealing of all is the collective experience of Ivy Hill's business woman and knitting group. People refused to believe these skilled women were capable of producing good, marketable work, and chose the illusion that it must have been done by a man. Even Jane realised she'd unconsciously regarded members of her own gender this way, to her shock and shame.

My main disappointment with the novel is having to wait for the next one to find out what will happen now. There are so many great characters whose threads may be picked up. I hope Jane will still feature strongly in the sequel. She turned out to be one of those characters whose positive impact sticks in my mind. After all the losses she'd suffered (of which her husband's death is just one), her final, reflective attitude sits well with me. Even though nothing ended up matching the ideal plans for her life she concocted when she was a girl, she decides there's still a lot of good in her world on which to focus.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for my review copy.

5 stars

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