When eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway takes a walk one wintery day, she finds a tiny baby girl abandoned in the snow. Aurelia takes the child into her home and her heart, naming her Amy Snow, but her parents are not so accepting and make Amy’s life miserable. As Amy grows up, she becomes Aurelia’s companion but their time together proves to be short-lived as Aurelia is diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. After Aurelia dies, Amy is cast out of the only home she has ever known but Aurelia has one last surprise for her “little sister” as she sets Amy on a quest.
Aurelia has left a trail of letters for Amy which lead her on a remarkable journey of self-discovery where she will meet people who will welcome her into their lives, even though they have never met her. Although Aurelia has set Amy on a distinct path, she is really giving Amy the chance to travel and live independently in a era where women were supposed to be dependent. On her journey, Amy meets a variety of different people who teach her different things, including what is like to be part of a loving family and the object of a handsome young man’s affection.
Amy Snow was the winner of Richard and Judy’s Search for a Bestseller competition, although I didn’t know that when I bought it as I don’t pay attention to book lists. It’s a decent enough debut but not without its problems because I started to get bored long before Amy reached the final destination on her quest. When I started the book, I was under the impression Amy was on a quest to uncover the truth behind her abandonment so was a little dismayed to learn we were actually unravelling a secret from Aurelia’s past which really was not hard to work out. Aware her death is imminent, Aurelia decides she wants to experience as much of the world as she possibly can, so she leaves Amy behind at Hatville while she travels around England for the next year. However, what Aurelia is really doing is setting up Amy’s quest by leaving her letters in places and arranging for her to stay with the friends Aurelia has made.
Aurelia’s activities at this point are also part of the truth she is eventually going to reveal to Amy at the end of her quest, however the nature of the secret is entirely transparent and predictable which spoils things somewhat. Although, I may have lost interest in Amy’s quest, it doesn’t really matter all that much because part of Aurelia’s goal is also for Amy to experience life for herself since she has grown up in the austere setting of Hatville under a cloud of disapproval. Amy has learned to blend into the background to avoid the reproachful glances from the Vennaways who resent her presence in their home, but Aurelia’s quest will force Amy to come out of her protective shell. When Amy begins to meet people who genuinely like her, her amazement at being treated with kindness is heartbreaking and I enjoyed watching Amy blossom in the warm environment of the Wister family who welcome her as just another one of their expanding brood.
The variety of characters are intriguing but many of them feel one-dimensional, in the sense that they are either completely good or completely bad, and nothing in between. The family who make the most impact on Amy are the Wisters at Twickenham where she stays for two months, however the entire family are just way too perfect and every single one of them ends up loving Amy to the extent they can’t bear for her to leave them. The most interesting character is Mrs. Riverthorp, an eccentric old lady who defies convention to live the way she wants to rather than how society dictates. Mrs. Riverthorp likes nothing better than inviting odd guests to her card parties so she can pitch them against each other and watch the resulting chaos, however we are told about this rather than shown which is a pity. Another main character is Henry Mead, Amy’s love interest, who is endearing enough but they fall in love within the space of three weeks and it is all just too easy. Quentin Garland, a wealthy man who takes a romantic interest in Amy, is golden-haired and perfectly tailored, and since his shimmery exterior is remarked on so often, you just know he is a cad.
The book changes tenses to indicate different states with Amy’s quest being related in the dreaded present tense which I’m learning to live with since it is so fashionable but it never makes for comfortable reading for me. The present day scenes are interspersed with Amy’s memories of her life at Hatville which she recalls as her journey progresses, and are written in the past tense. It flows quite well as everything is related by Amy, apart from the curious epilogue where Mrs Vennaway takes over to reveal Amy’s origins and justify her treatment of the poor girl but it just feels unnecessary to be honest.
Rees does a good job of evoking the period though and there’s a lot of detail there, sometimes maybe a bit too much, but you will definitely get a feel for the era.