'To be fascinating, Bea thinks, a woman has to have secrets.'
The novel focuses on the stories of two characters who reside at Park Lane in London, Beatrice and Grace. Lady Beatrice is a privileged young woman who yearns for escape from the tiresome social conventions imposed upon her by her class. Under the influence of her aunt she joins the suffragette movement, becoming enraptured by Emmeline Pankhurst and acquainted with a man her family most certainly would not approve of. Grace is a maid at Park Lane, although she tells her family that she is a secretary. As the First World War breaks their secrets become inconsequential, and their stories collide in a way that no one could ever have imagined.
It took me a long time to get into this book, and I very nearly gave up many times. The narrative voice is written in third person present tense, and reads like a constant stream of the protagonists' thoughts, both of which take some getting used to. In the early chapters the plot flits too quickly between the two stories, and you find yourself just getting to grips with events when the viewpoint switches. I found Beatrice's story much more interesting, and so was glad to discover that the majority of the later chapters were focused on her.
It had the potential to be a gripping novel, yet it was the premise of the plot, rather than what was actually happening, that encouraged me to read on. Once Beatrice joins the suffragettes the story starts to get going, and her time spent as an ambulance driver in the war is an interesting read. As a character I liked Beatrice's independence, and her refusal to be patronised because of her gender. Grace, however, I found a bit irritating; she was incredibly passive and timid, purposely the polar opposite to Bea I suppose. I couldn't understand her reasoning behind some of her actions - and there is one pivotal moment in the novel that I certainly didn't see coming!
I wasn't particularly fond of the ending either; realistically things ended the way that they should have, but I couldn't help but want a bit more from the final chapter.
Park Lane is likened on the cover to Downton Abbey, and for me this is where the book fails. Too much time at the beginning of the novel was spent trying to imitate the series and appeal to the fans when it should have just told its own story. A review on the back cover also states that Park Lane has 'echoes of Edith Wharton,' but aside from the aspirations of Beatrice I don't see any likeness.
This is Frances Osborne's first novel, and to take on the Downton fan base with a novel written in a very unusual style was a brave move on her part. The novel takes a long time to get going, but once it does it becomes engaging, and Frances' research into the period comes to the fore through her evocative descriptions.
3/5 stars: Less Downton Abbey and more a First World War version of Upstairs Downstairs, Park Lane is a fascinating insight into both the suffragette movement and the role of women during the war.