Gently, he forced her to open her mouth and thrust his tongue inside while holding her so close she couldn’t push him away. After a second or two, she seemed to take the course of least resistance, not objecting, yet not encouraging… Suddenly, she gave in and kissed him back clasping around the neck with both arms, murmuring pleasurable sounds as he kissed her cheek, her throat…
You must forgive me for inserting this masterpiece of a paragraph as an opening sequence, but really I just can’t help myself. It’s so perfectly unlike anything else in this disastrous genius of a book.
I picked Capel Bells as a story set mainly in what now is Outer London, on the grounds of Capel Manor, a garden and a further education college establishment specialising in horticulture and countryside management in the London Borough of Enfield. This book is sold at Capel Manor gardens’ shop plus it got referenced in Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographical masterpeice “London Orbital”, which I definitely will soon review as well.
The cover tells us that the story is “beset with every problem”. I can assure you, it is!
The “story”, or I would rather say “events” are centered on Charlotte Blair, “an ambitious woman, determined to be a success”. She is an entrepreneur flower decorator lady from a lower working class in 1912. She struggles to maintain right life-work balance and often uses flowers as a form of escapism from life’s emotional reality.
The story starts as she rents out a property (Capel Manor) from Matthew Warrender, a noble, but not very rich gentleman who unexpectedly returns from Hong Kong because em… he really wanted to be a love interest in this book.
He has riveting qualities that no doubt will make you to the edge of your seat of what will feel like an eternity reading this amazing collection of words. Those are courteous and polite and em… observant! He sees Charlotte as an equal, while all others either see her as an angry bitch or a competitor and that is definitely enough to be a love interest, amirite?
The plot, as you see, is a bewildering mixture of meh and shrug, and by god this book has at least a dozen subplots, which may seem pointless, but actually so good that they have a potential grow into their own novels to eventually replace waterboarding as a trending torture technique.
For example, there is her gardener, Jacko Boon, who falls in love with the daughter of one of Charlotte’s business partners. Will these two overcome the harsh societal and personality differences and realise their love?
Yes, at the end he gets his girl without any problems.
Or there is another gardener, John Green, who has a horrible problem of living in an unhappy marriage and being bullied by his evil and ruthless mother-in-law. He gets recognition on the last pages without problems.
But than here is a shady bubble company that Charotte gets involved in… it goes safely into liquidation and scandal is avioded.
You may notice the pattern here.
The main problem of the book is that Joan does not seem to understand the concept of built-up and payoff. She sets up multiple problems, but never shows how characters deal with them, what they have to loose, what they learn. You never see them truly ache, or having to make a tough choice. There is no story, no real conflict, just a series of events that do not affect one another clumsily stitched with flower-related conversations.
She sets up substantial class differences between a few of her couples including the main one. If you think we will be shown how painful it is for both persons to adjust, how much pain the class system brings and how reckless a decision to marry out of one’s class can be – you are in for a surprise. How the characters overcome troubles, what sacrifices do they make? It does not matter! The class problem is just scoffed away. No-one really cares!
Half-way through the book robberies start to happen following Miss Blair’s house decorating commissions. Customers start to flee Charlotte. Do you think it will be going to matter? Of course not! The subplot will be abandoned and she will find other customers and burglaries will be solved in five lines on the final pages (spoiler alert: no-one is convicted).
Joan builds up to money problems that Charlotte is having. In order to afford Capel Manor she has to stretch her funds as thin as she can, she risks her very business and her prosperity. Her decision can lift her to incredible heights or forever doom her to unbearable debt… And after a business failure, stolen monies and leaving customers, when everything seems lost… Charlotte easily finds resources fail after fail again.
Even the final payoff is disappointing. There are no consequences to anything. Nothing ever lost, nothing ever gained. Problems pop out of nowhere, never confronted and abandoned two pages later.
The story is beyond predictable. You instantly know who will hook up with whom. There is a subplot about Molly, Charlotte’s capable and reliable assistant. She is keeping her chastity, but eventually gives in to the pleas of her love interest, – and you know where this always goes!. As every girl in fiction having sex for the first time, she immediately gets pregnant. But again – because we live in the world where nothing has any consequences, Charlotte simply replaces Molly with two other girls and the problem never goes anywhere.
“Capel Bells” a “period novel” but you never actually feel the period. There is very little atmosphere, very little descriptions, you do not imagine the world characters live in. It is not immersive, it does not allow you to put your mind off your worries.
There are too many characters, and not enough stakes. The truth is, the characters are actually fun, they have relatable backgrounds and clear ambitions, but they are never given anything interesting to do. You could write out a few of them and the story would not change. You could even write out Charlotte and Matthew’s story would not change!
Judging by reviews Joan seems to be a competent gardening writer, but this fictional novel has the same levels of emotional involvement as glasshouse building instructions. I would not have a problem, if “Capel Bells” was just self-indulgent softcore porn novel, like in that first paragraph. It at least would be entertaining. It does give you some background on Capel Manor and surrounding area, but in it’s essence it is just a weak, deeply passable book with no particular point.