Book Review for “The Mitford Affair” by Marie Benedict.
Summary: “Between the World Wars, the six Mitford sisters dominate the English political, literary, and social scenes. Though they’ve weathered scandals before, the family falls into disarray when Diana divorces her husband to marry a fascist leader and Unity follows her sister’s lead, inciting rumors that she’s become Hitler’s own mistress. Novelist Nancy Mitford is the only member of her family to keep in touch with Diana and Unity after their desertion, so it falls to her to act when her sisters become spies for the Nazi party. Probing the torrid political climate of World War II and the ways that sensible people can be sucked into radical action, The Mitford Affair follows Nancy’s valiant efforts to end the war and the cost of placing loyalty to her country above loyalty to her family.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical – Post-WWI/Pre-WWII, UK – mostly London, Germany – Berlin and other locations, Europe – several locations; Other Categories: Biographical, Novel, Family Saga, Political.
The horrible hole in my literary education regarding Nancy Mitford and her family was partly filled when I read Eliza Knight’s biographical fiction novel, The Mayfair Bookshop last year. Obviously, that wasn’t enough for me. Not only did I rush to get the ARC of this novel, but I actually purchased one of Nancy’s books on my last trip to the UK (no, I haven’t read it yet). Now, unlike the two divergent books about Alice Diamond (Forty Elephants and Queen of Thieves), I’m pleased to say that both Knight and Benedict seem to have done similar paths of research, and I could find nothing in either book which contradicted the other. Mind you, Benedict doesn’t get involved in Nancy’s bookshop, while Knight played down (partially) Nancy’s sisters’ political penchants. This means we have two very different novels, despite the similar source materials.
While Knight’s book is really all about Nancy, the bookshop, and her love life, as noted above, Benedict focuses on Nancy together with two of her sisters – Diana and Unity. Yes, the other siblings do get mentioned in the book, together with other family members (like Winston Churchill, for example), but these three are the meat of this story, and Benedict tells them through chapters which scroll through their three points of view. Interestingly enough, only Nancy gets a first-person voice here, while both Diana’s and Unity’s stories are both told in third person. I’m guessing that Benedict did this to help the reader feel closer to Nancy and distance themselves from Diana and Unity. I think that worked quite well, but I often worry that a first-person voice can lead to suspicions of their being an unreliable narrator. But I don’t think this happened here, and… in real life, I don’t think I’d ever want to meet up with either Diana or Unity, but what I wouldn’t give to sit down to an afternoon tea (well, coffee for me) with that amazing Nancy!
Another thing I noticed with this book is how Benedict was very careful to use the King’s English (oops, I almost wrote Queen’s here – RIP) throughout this novel. Not that it made it feel stiff or staid, but rather that it felt quite proper and elegant. This worked to perfection with her subject matter, since these are all women of class – both figuratively and literally. I mean, the descriptions of Diana and how she dressed and held herself with such sophistication alone gave me a truly vivid picture of her. As for Unity, although I know she was very tall, I’m not sure why I got the idea that she was kind of dumpy looking, and not terribly attractive. So, I looked for pictures of her, and although she wasn’t totally unappealing, she did look quite dull compared to Nancy and Diana. This proves that Benedict did a superlative job of giving me the right images for her main characters.
Obviously, aside from the relationship between these three, there’s an “affair” going on, as the title of this novel hints. Actually, if you ask me, maybe the book should have been called “The Mitfords’ Affairs” since all three of them were involved in one type of sticky situation or another, and sometimes a couple at the same time. This is what makes Benedict’s latest book a real page-turner, even if you already know much about the history of these women (which I do from Knight’s novel). The bottom line is, while I had a hard time feeling much sympathy for Diana and Unity (pity would be a better word), I’m not sure I was able to fall in love with Nancy either (no, I didn’t cry). That said, this novel reinforced my caring and admiration for Nancy, as well as my incredulity regarding her sisters. Because of this, I’m very warmly recommending this novel, and for me I can rate it 4.75 stars out of five (sorry, I still don’t have a graphic for this, so I’ll use the 5/5 one)! In fact, I think people should read both these novels; they don’t contradict each other, and together they give us a picture of Nancy Mitford that fully complex and multifaceted!
Sourcebooks Landmark released “The Mitford Affair” by Marie Benedict on January 17, 2023. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Blackwell‘s, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#2), Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#2). (NOTE: I could have put this into the What’s In a Name challenge for one of the Seven Deadly Sins (greed and/or lust), but I don’t want to finish the challenge too soon! Obviously, if by the end of the year I don’t have something for that category, I can go back and include this one there!)
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