The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

The Valentine House surprised me. Having read Emma Henderson’s first novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud, in 2011, I had expected this new one, her second, to be something similar. Instead, what I found was something completely different. Grace Williams was a moving, thought-provoking story of a young girl in a 1950s mental institution; The Valentine House is probably best described as a family saga set in the French Alps.

The house referred to in the title is Arete, a large chalet in the mountains overlooking the village of Hext. It was built by a British mountaineer, Sir Anthony Valentine, in the 19th century and is used as a summer home by successive generations of his family. Our story begins in 1914 when Mathilde, a teenage girl from a farm in the valley, goes to work for the Valentines. Mathilde is an ‘Ugly’, the term given to the unattractive young women who make up Arete’s workforce, specially chosen by Sir Anthony’s wife, Lady C, as being less likely to catch her husband’s eye. Spending her summers at the house, Mathilde gets to know the Valentine family, particularly Daisy, a girl the same age as herself who becomes gradually wilder and more unstable as the years go by.

Decades later, in the summer of 1976, Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson George is visiting Arete with several of his cousins. Even though Sir Anthony is long gone, his legacy lives on in the Alpine Club which he created to entertain the younger members of the family, and George and his cousins continue to carry out Club activities such as the outdoor physical challenges known as ‘Paideia’. Mathilde is still there too, an elderly woman now, but as much a part of Arete life as she has ever been.

The Valentine House is a dual time period novel: a chapter set in 1976 and written from George’s perspective is followed by one narrated by Mathilde and set earlier in the century. Eventually the two begin to converge and secrets which have been kept hidden from the reader (and from some of the characters) start to be revealed. What is the truth behind the disappearance of Margaret, Sir Anthony’s daughter, whose visits to Arete came to an abrupt stop many years ago? Mathilde is sure that if she could only find out what happened to Margaret everything else that has puzzled her about the Valentines would begin to make sense. Although some of the plot twists and revelations could probably be predicted, I didn’t even try to guess – I just relaxed and let the story take me in whichever direction it wanted to go, which meant I was kept in suspense until the various Valentine mysteries started to unfold.

I did struggle at times to keep track of all the characters and how they were related to each other. This is probably not surprising, as there are five generations of the family featured in the novel; drawing a simple family tree helped to solve the problem, although I wish I’d had the sense to do it at the beginning of the book instead of when I was already halfway through!

I think what I loved most about The Valentine House was the setting; I haven’t been to the area of France described in the book – the Haute-Savoie – but I would like to as Emma Henderson makes it sound beautiful. And this is a good place for me to mention that Sir Anthony himself has a unique way of describing the Alpine mountains and valleys, which you’ll discover in the opening paragraph of the novel. If you find that the language he uses makes you blush, don’t worry – this does not reflect the style of writing throughout the rest of the book!

Although I found both threads of the story very enjoyable, it usually seems to be inevitable with dual timeline novels that readers will have a preference for one storyline over the other and in my case it was the one narrated by Mathilde. And it was Mathilde whose story lingered on in my mind for days after finishing the book.

Now I’m wondering what Emma Henderson’s third book will be about. I hope there’s going to be one!

Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson

This moving and thought-provoking novel by Emma Henderson introduces us to a girl called Grace Williams. Grace was born with severe disabilities and a childhood case of polio only makes things worse. When she is eleven years old, her parents send her to the Briar Mental Institute, a residential home for disabled people. Unfortunately it’s the 1950s, a less enlightened time than today, but Grace is lucky in that she does meet a few people at The Briar who can see past her disabilities and who offer her friendship and love. One of these is Daniel Smith, a boy who has problems of his own – he suffers from epilepsy and has also lost both of his arms in an accident. But although life at The Briar is not easy, Grace and Daniel form a relationship that helps to sustain them both.

Grace comes across as an observant, funny, loving young woman trapped by her own inability to communicate and her physical appearance, both of which lead to her being dismissed and shunned by society. But the fact that Grace’s narrative voice is so clear and articulate shows that she is not lacking in intelligence and awareness. She doesn’t have a problem understanding what other people are saying; she just finds it hard to express herself verbally, always responding in sentences of no more than two words (“me too” or “yes, please”). And yet because of her limited speech many people assume she’s not able to follow a conversation – and so they talk about her as if she wasn’t a human being with feelings, as if she wasn’t even there, which is all very sad.

Even sadder are the reactions of Grace’s family – the shame and frustration of her parents, the matter of fact way in which her little sister, Sarah, tells a friend that she has ‘two sisters but one of them doesn’t count’ (a scene which really broke my heart). Other bloggers have mentioned that Emma Henderson explained in her author’s note how this and other episodes of the story were based on her own memories and experiences of having a sister who, like Grace, spent many years in an institution. I’m disappointed that my copy of the book didn’t include this note from the author as I would have liked to have known about the inspiration behind the story.

The descriptions of the way the Briar residents were treated by their nurses and teachers are shocking. Although there were a few who did show some kindness and compassion, many of the others were cruel, unkind and displayed a complete lack of interest in even trying to understand the people they were supposed to be caring for. Unfortunately some went even further, abusing their positions of authority and taking advantage of the vulnerable people under their care. As you can imagine, some parts of the book are emotionally quite difficult and uncomfortable to read, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bleak and depressing book because it’s really not. However hard things may be for Grace, there are still positive things in her life – the most important of these being her friendship with Daniel.

I really loved the character of Daniel: intelligent, caring, full of hope and optimism. And yet he does still have moments where everything becomes too much for him. He has a very sad and tragic story of his own, a story which moved me in a way that even Grace’s didn’t. Although Grace is the narrator and central character of the book, I never felt quite the same connection with her that I did with Daniel.

I can’t say I loved this book, but I’m glad I read it and I know it’s not a story that will be easily forgotten. I’m sure the things I’ve read will stay with me for years to come. So if you’d like to know what Grace Williams has to say, then pick up a copy of this book and find out.