10. Maggie Vaults Over the Moon by Grant Overstake
“The Uninvited Guests” by Sadie Jones
If you loved “Downton Abbey,” you’ll enjoy this Edwardian romp... but it goes beyond the usual aristocratic yet cash-poor family, wise and devoted servants, and rich suitors. All of these stereotypical elements are present in the story, but so are dozens of weary train passengers who may or may not actually exist, lurid tales of past indiscretions, and “Great Undertakings” of an equine nature.
The entire story takes place one night in the spring of 1912 as the Torrington family prepares to celebrate Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. Her younger brother Clovis is handsome yet self-absorbed, and her little sister Imogen, known to all as Smudge, is mostly overlooked and forgotten at Sterne, the large family estate. Emerald is as dazzlingly beautiful as her name suggests, taking after her lovely but coldhearted mother Charlotte. With the stepfather away in London trying to solve the financial problems that threaten the estate, the family plans to celebrate Emerald’s birthday with a low-key dinner. But a surprising gift from a possible suitor, a train wreck, an unexpected reunion with a diabolical man posing as a friendly aristocrat, a dangerous parlor game, and a pony that is trapped in the house all bring on mayhem and madness as dark indiscretions of the past unravel and budding romances unexpectedly start to bloom.
The novel may begin in a lighthearted manner, but it becomes increasingly tense as the evening progresses and class relations and hypocrisy are exposed. The Torringtons are not true aristocrats; therefore, maintaining class distinctions seems especially important to them as a way to delineate their status in society. This is why Charlotte, who wishes to dissociate herself entirely from the lower classes, literally separates the two groups by shutting the third class train passengers in the morning room and ignoring them while her family and guests go on with their dinner as planned. Having risen from the lower classes herself, Charlotte’s hypocrisy is at first amusing: “Charlotte had built her life so that she might avoid third-class train carriages and she wasn’t going to wring her hands over those who made use of them now.” Later, however, as the stranded train wreck passengers begin to wander ominously through the house and the dinner guests show a surprising potential for cruelty, the uninvited guests of the novel (and there are many!) can no longer be ignored, and the mood of the novel darkens. Just when things can get no worse, the family rallies, class distinctions fall away, and old prejudices are challenged and defeated.
“The Unexpected Guests” is a fun combination of an Edwardian-era comedy of manners mixed with a surrealistic ghost story. Jones skillfully balances the whimsical and the strange with great aplomb in this delightful novel.