Erica James is an author whose name I’ve long been familiar with but whose books I’d never quite got round to reading. Beguiled by the bright, summery cover, I decided to begin with James’s 19th – and latest – novel, The Dandelion Years.
I do like a novel with a good dual time frame and this one delivers on that front. Our present day heroine is Saskia, a book-restorer in her early 30s. Saskia resides at the idyllic Ashcombe cottage with her father, Ralph, and her two grandfathers, Oliver and Harvey. This unusual living arrangement came about under tragic circumstances when Saskia’s mother and two grandmothers were killed in a car accident on her tenth birthday.
This tragedy has, quite understandably, made Saskia somewhat resistant to change. She has also managed to convince herself that loving someone isn’t always worth the pain of losing them. She thus has a habit of shying away from romance and finds it difficult to trust.
Whilst Saskia’s father and grandfathers worry that she has become stuck in a rut, she discovers a secret notebook hidden inside an old family Bible. The notebook contains a story, which the initially anonymous author purports to be true, entitled ‘The Dandelion Years’. Saskia becomes entranced by the author’s account of a wartime love affair conducted between two young people embroiled in top secret work at Bletchley Park.
As the novel unfolds, Saskia identifies the notebook’s author and confides in Matthew, the young man who was like a son to him. Their shared interest in the story of The Dandelion Years brings Saskia and Matthew closer together. But can Saskia escape the shadow of her tragic past and allow herself a chance at happiness? Does the notebook have any words of wisdom for Saskia and Matthew to learn from?
I turned to The Dandelion Years for some easy summer reading and that is exactly what it provided. It took me a little while to get into this one, largely because Saskia and her family seemed rather twee to my tastes. I soon fell under their spell, though. Indeed, I ended up finding the modern day story just as compelling as the Second World War narrative. Usually with dual-narratives, one is slightly stronger than the other but I liked both equally here and didn’t heave a sigh when the author switched between them.
That said, Saskia’s story did seem to drag on for a little while at the end. I think it’s also worth pointing out that, although two of the main characters work at Bletchley Park, the focus is solely on the romance: there is not very much detail about their wartime work here. I would have liked a little more on this, but James’s descriptions of dreadful landladies with black market dealings and plucky land girls were sufficient to lend period flavour.
For me, there was something a little flat about The Dandelion Years, and I doubt it will prove to be all that memorable. Despite this, it is a diverting read with some appealing characters and enough packed into both narratives to keep you turning the pages. I would, however, like to issue a Weepie Alert here: there are one or two passages that made the novel tricky to read on public transport because I had ‘such terrible hay fever today, dammit!’