It’s been a while since I wrote a series I love post – and as we’re all in the market for some binge-reading at the moment, I thought I would offer a suggestion for Easter at the same time. I have written about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s series in roundup posts before, but it’s been a few years and now seems like the time to have a proper moment for them.
So the series tells the stories of the Cazalet family from the last years before World War Two until the 1950s. A the start of the series in The Light Years, you meet the characters in 1937 as they gather at Home Place – where The Brig and Duchy live. They have four grown-up children, sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert – who all work in the family firm – and a daughter, Rachel, who lives at home. Their lives look perfect on the surface, but underneath they all have problems. Hugh is still struggling after the Great War, Edward is chronically unfaithful to his wife, Rupert has a younger, demanding wife and Rachel is putting her loyalty to the family above any chance of personal happiness. All three of the sons have children and we see their lives too, complete with rivalries, alliances and fears. As the series goes on, you see them all age and mature (and in some cases die) until by the final book of the series even the youngest of the children from the first book are adults.
The narrative moves from character to character, so they all have their own stories that add up to a bigger picture that only the reader is fully aware of. I have been known to go through the series just reading the bits about my favourite characters. I don’t know how Elizabeth Jane Howard does it, but she juggles a huge cast of characters while making them all seem different and distinct, and by the end you have sympathy even for the people who you found the most unlikable at the start *cough* Edward *cough* Villy *cough* and have seen promising children turn into horrors. It’s not quite a Rich People Problems book, because although they are well off upper class types (not aristocracy though) the war is a genuine real problem with genuine consequences, but it’s not far off.
I first read the original quartet while raiding my mum’s bookshelves in my teens and my sister read them not long after. I actually own then as actual books and as ebooks and they are one of the few series that we all own our own copies of. Well, at least we all own the first four books. I think I’m the only one with a copy of the fifth. All Change came out in 2013 nearly 20 years after Casting Off – which had finished the series off perfectly – to my mind at least. Looking back at my goodreads review from the time, I found it true to the series and not contrived, but it is telling that I haven’t been back to re-read it since then. It’s quite melancholy and sad in places – more than the others are because it doesn’t have the same payoffs at the end. It was inevitable – and well signposted in the earlier books – that the war was going to change the lives and lifestyles of the family, but All Change really leans into the reality of that and it makes me a bit sad and means you end the series on a bit less of a satisfying high than you do if you finish at Casting Off. I don’t think it spoils the whole series (which was my big fear before it came out) but I prefer to think of them all as they were at the end of Casting Off – heading out into their futures with all sorts of possibilities unexplored and ahead of them.
The weather is just starting to turn properly nice here at the moment – with flowers blooming in the garden and the sun shining – which makes it an ideal time to start reading about the last golden summers before the Second World War. At 400 pages each, they’ll also keep you going over the long Easter weekend and beyond if you want them to. I originally read these not long after I had read Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Hold the Dream series and was looking for something similar – telling the stories of a family over years and years. Once I’d read the Cazalets, I was spoiled forever for the genre. Lots of people have tried to tell stories like this, but very few have done it as well as Elizabeth Jane Howard did. The original books came out in the early 90s, so it’s very possible that some of you reading this haven’t come across her before – so if you like authors like Harriet Evans, Dinah Jeffries or have enjoyed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books, you should totally try these. And if anyone has any recommendations for other series that I could read that do the same sort of thing – then drop them in the comments. Also: if you like this and haven’t read The Camomile Lawn, then you should totally read that too.
As the bookshops are closed, and these aren’t new releases, I suspect you’ll have to buy them as ebooks. The Kindle and Kobo editions of the Light Years are £3.99 at the moment, which isn’t too bad. After that the prices go up for books two and three and Casting Off is a bargainous 99p (Kindle/Kobo)- but whatever you do, don’t start there, it won’t work for you anywhere near as well.
Happy Reading and stay safe.