The Favour by Laura Vaughan
Ada Howell has expectations from life. She doesn’t want to just fit in, she wants to go back to where she was. At thirteen she lost her stepfather, and his family home disappeared from her life. Garreg Las is a country house in Carmarthenshire, built in 1807, a solid home for members of the gentry. Ada feels that she was exiled from there when her mother sold up to buy a new home, a new way of life in London. She loved the sounds, the atmosphere of the house and garden, a sense of place she cannot find anywhere else. When she sees the chance to join a gap year tour at the age of eighteen she is keen to try and rejoin the world of the landed and comfortably wealthy, young people who can afford a tour of eight weeks in Italy with privileged access to the choicest sites. Called “Dilettanti Discoveries”, the promise of an expensive introduction to art and the opportunity to make “lifelong friends” is too tempting; a gift from an eccentric godmother and hard work makes it possible with care, and Ada finds herself in Venice.
This book is a stylishly written novel narrated by its lead character, a young woman who intends to grasp at the chances offered by close proximity to the rich and confident. It has a terrific sense of place, whether that be the half – remembered house of childhood, the basement of a head office in Holborn, or the cramped streets of Venice. Parts of it are dream like, peopled by glamorous souls who seem to exist outside a real life of savings and budgets, while other parts are tinged with nightmare, when the worst happens. I found it an intense book, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
The most significant part of the book in some ways is the eight week tour of the art treasures of Venice, Florence and Rome. Not that the classical and religious inspired paintings, frescos and statues are what Ada spends most of her time studying; her observations are of the other people in the group. There are the young men, assured of their place in the world, with in jokes and a common background of expensive education. Some are more affable than others, some play pointless pranks and make innuendo laden comments, one or two are a little hostile. Oliver is the latter, disparaging of a young woman who seems merely to watch, perhaps judging. Lorcan is more affable, with a complicated if wealthy background, he does not feel threatened. A tutor, Nate, is a vague connection, but Ada has her reasons to be suspicious of him. The other girls a mixed bunch; ranging from the giggly, to the hopeful Petra, the American Mallory Kaplan with her questions, to the distant Annabelle, with her connection to Lorcan. As the tour proceeds, undercurrents of relationships develop and shift, building to an event that shakes up even the most self possessed, let alone those who seem more vulnerable. The effects of that event last beyond the end of the tour, and as Ada makes the most of opportunities, happiness still seems as elusive as dreams of a place to which she cannot return.
This is a skillfully written book which moves and shifts in unexpected ways, as characters appear, make their contribution and then flit back into the shadows of Ada’s life. It brings to life the byways of Venice beyond the tourist sites, and also deals with a variety of human experience through the eyes of a watchful young woman. Not an easy book to pin down by genre, it has so many elements and strands within it, it offers an unusual story and view of contemporary life. I recommend it as an imaginative reading experience which offers real insight and observations of the need to belong.