Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sarah's Story-First in Quantocks Quartet

I just finished up a lovely, lovely book.  It's called Sarah's Story by Ruth Elwin Harris.  It's set before and throughout WWI in a small English village and it's been called "the Little Women of our times."  While I wouldn't go that far (nobody can rival L.M. Alcott's perfect book), this was a fantastic book.

This series is very interesting because it records four sisters' tellings of the same story.  It's a brilliant way of writing and, as far as I know, it's the first time that this has ever been done in the world of fiction writing.  There are four Purcell sisters: Sarah, Gwen, Julia, and Frances. 

The story starts with Sarah-the youngest-nicknamed "Mouse".  She is the always-forgotten little sister.  The story begins just after the death of the Purcell sisters' mother.  A famous painter, as soon as her husband died, she lost the will to live.  The Purcells are taken under the wing of the kindly vicar, Mr. Mckenzie, and his domineering wife.  The Mckenzies have 3 sons, who feature heavily in this book. 

The three eldest of the sisters are all serious artists, but Sarah appears to have no talent, until she realizes how much she loves to write.  It is this love of writing that drives her to many new experiences.

The book was heartbreakingly sad at places-something that I don't tend to like-but for some reason I wasn't fazed in the least.  This book captured me and I fell in love at once. 

The sisters are wildly different.  Frances is tempestuous and the most brilliant painter of them all.  She fights constantly with her sisters, Mrs. Mckenzie, and her love interest, Gabriel Mckenzie.  We don't hear much from Gwen and Julia.  In fact, I'm looking forward to hearing more about them in future novels.  Sarah is, of course, the main character, so we hear quite a lot from her.

From her failed attempt at a boarding school to her adoration-from-afar of Gabriel Mckenzie, to her friendship with the family maid, Sarah is a lively, 3-dimensional character.  I think that Harris's gift may lie in writing truly brilliant characters.  Sarah and Frances, in particular, felt so alive to me as I read this story.

Harris's other gift is seamlessly incorporating fiction into history.  A main focus of the book is WWI.  The Mckenzie boys go off to the war and there is frequent mention of world events going on in the context of their little village.  There is a breathtakingly sad part where one of the Mckenzie boys tells Sarah about the horrible flashbacks he gets and the noises he hears- PTSD, although they didn't know about that at the time.  

This book did have a lot of elements that were similar to Little Women, but I wouldn't call it "the new Little Women".  For instance, the book is quite a bit darker than Little Women.  Although both were set during war times, the war was much more in the background in Little Women.  Also, this book had a more adult tone than Little Women, even though it was about girls.  The problems and events were adult-scale and even Sarah, who is 11 at the start of the book, is seen through grown up eyes.  But I still loved the book for itself.

I would recommend this book to anybody who likes a gently gripping life saga.  This story was pure enjoyment to read and I can't wait to get my hands on the second in the series.


  1. So excited that you've read this too - I thought I was the only one! I loved the Quantocks Quartet! I think that Sarah was my favourite but I'm not sure if that was just because she was the youngest (I was about thirteen when I first read them). I also loved Julia's story too. I've been thinking about it off and on this year with the centenary of WW1 going on - I think this was the first series that really made me think about what had happened to that generation.

  2. I love this series! I found the first one in a bookstore in Oxford, then had to order the rest expensively once I was back in the US. Have you read Testament of Youth? It is darker still but wonderful. You should read it before the movie comes out in January.