So begins The Drowning People, an extraordinary debut novel by a twenty-year-old Oxford student.
When he first lays eyes on her sitting by the Thames, James Farrell, an aspiring violinist, falls instantly in love with Ella Harewood, a young and beautiful society girl engaged to a Cambridge don. Defying the strict social standards of upper-class England, the two carry on a passionate affair, believing that the burning power of their love will justify all their actions, guarantee them a life of happiness, and keep them on top of the world.
But the heady rush of first love threatens to ruin their lives forever. In the ultimate test of loyalty, Ella forces James to violently betray his best friend, and, in doing so, sets off a chain of events that will lead to murder and bitter revenge.
Written with wisdom beyond the author's years, The Drowning People is both a trenchant portrayal of the British upper class and a passionate story about the limits of friendship, the legacy of family, and the volatile power of first love.
"I see her fumble absently in her bag for a cigarette, watch her light it, and follow silver-grey smoke circles upwards to a pale blue sky. The park is noticeably warmer now; people are trickling in, and as they pass they cannot help but look at us, an odd pair under the trees. I can smell the faint odour of sweet perfume and soap and stale cigarette smoke which surrounds her; can hear the click of her lighter flint as she makes a flame; can see, as she holds her cigarette, that one of her nails is bitten to the quick.
"Have you been out here all night?" I ask.
She nods, with a little tighteningof pale lips. "Oh yes," she says. "This bench and I are old friends. It's heard more of my secrets than it cares to remember, I suspect."
The startling opening sentence (My wife of more than 45 years shot herself yesterday afternoon) and the compelling voice of narrator James Farrell draw the reader into the emotional vortex of this accomplished debut novel by a 20-year-old British writer. We learn immediately that his long marriage to Sarah Harcourt was not an affair of the heart for James. His love for Sarahs insecure, fragile cousin, Emma, is the substance of the flashback narrative, which deftly evokes the obsessive passion of first love, meanwhile alluding heavily to sin and guilt. When James meets Ella Harcourt he is about to graduate from Oxford, and to begin serious study of the violin. English-born but raised in America, Ella is heiress to the family seat, Seton Castle, which Sarah patently covets. Moreover, Ella has stolen the man Sarah loves, an eminently acceptable member of the English upper class, and is about to announce their engagement. Recognizing that they are meant for each other, Ella and James conspire to break the engagement, meanwhile meeting secretly and enjoying supreme happiness. They separate for a time when James goes to Prague with his generous and devoted friend Eric de Vaurigard, but Ellas needy nature requires proof of Jamess love, and his actions lead to betrayal and death. Mason is remarkably assured for a young writer, but he has not aimed his sights very high. This is essentially a romantic novel in the Du Maurier tradition, reproducing the portentous, elegiac tone and slowly revealed secrets of this seductive genre. Though Mason supplies clever plot twists, the suspense element is clothed in psychological trendiness: the source of Jamess dilemma is the plot device of too much fiction of late. And though Jamess ruminations on the emotional repression of the British privileged classes alert the reader to his crucial lack of maturity, his incessantly repeated claims of navet and innocence wear thin. Yet there is a large audience for a suspenseful, romantic story like this one, especially when it is told in literate and polished prose. Moreover, the photogenic Mason (and his Oxford accent) should make quite a hit on the talk shows. Major ad/promo; rights sold in Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, France, Holland, Israel, Finland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Norway and Japan; Literary Guild alternate; Time Warner audio; author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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January 26, 2000
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