It’s been a long time since I read my first Natasha Solomons book, The Novel in the Viola. Although I enjoyed it, for some inexplicable reason I had never really thought about reading any of her other books until I spotted her new one, House of Gold, which was published in the UK last month. I think it was the simple, elegant cover that caught my attention, at a time when covers in general are becoming increasingly intricate and brightly coloured, but the story sounded appealing too…and it was. I loved it.
House of Gold tells the story of a fictional banking family, the Goldbaums, who are loosely based on the real-life Rothschilds. When we first meet the family in 1911, they are fabulously wealthy and hugely influential, with branches in five European capital cities. In a move intended to strengthen the ties between the Austrian and the British branches, a marriage has been arranged between Greta Goldbaum and her cousin Albert. This is nothing new – Greta has grown up with the knowledge that “the Goldbaum men were bankers, while the Goldbaum women married Goldbaum men and produced Goldbaum children”, but she has no desire to marry Albert and is sure they won’t be compatible. Of course, the wedding must go ahead anyway and Greta is forced to leave her parents’ home in Vienna to start a new life as a married woman in England.
The relationship between Greta and Albert is at the heart of the novel and I enjoyed watching them get to know each other, trying each in their own way to make their marriage work but not always succeeding. It’s not always easy, especially not for Greta, but even when things are at their worst she finds some fulfilment in transforming the gardens of Temple Court, the British Goldbaums’ estate in Hampshire, and as a result of taking on new responsibilities and developing new interests, she is able to grow as a person.
There is much more to the novel than this, though. Within a few short years of Greta’s marriage to Albert, the First World War begins, bringing with it new challenges, new difficulties but also new opportunities. With European governments desperate for money to fund their war efforts, the services of the Goldbaums are as much in demand as ever, but as a Jewish family they find that their position is no longer as secure as it has been in the past. For Greta, there is the additional problem of being stuck in the middle, with different branches of her family on opposite sides of the conflict.
Natasha Solomons takes us right to the centre of the action, with characters such as Greta’s beloved brother Otto and her French cousin Henri becoming directly caught up in the war that is tearing Europe apart. We also learn a lot about the role of money in war; to quote Otto, “Money has no passport and every passport…it has little respect for borders. Money, like water, finds a way.”
There’s so much going on in this novel…so many characters to meet and so many interesting stories to follow. Maybe that’s why, after being completely gripped by the lives and adventures of the Goldbaums, I was slightly disappointed by the unexpectedly abrupt ending and by subplots which seemed to lack a proper resolution. I hope that means Natasha Solomons might be planning a sequel. It would certainly be possible, but if not I will just have to go back and read her earlier novels. I have Mr Rosenblum’s List, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands and The Song Collector to choose from.