Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review of "Asta's Book" by Barbara Vine

In the early 1900s Rasmus Westerby moves his wife Asta and their two young boys from their native Denmark to London. Rasmus parks his family in the middling neighborhood of Hackney and leaves for long stretches of time, trying to become a business success.

For her part Asta doesn't like Hackney, disdains English people, has little interest in her sons, and has no love for her husband - who she thinks only married her for the dowry of 5,000 kroner. As it happens Asta is pregnant again (characters in this book have no concept of birth control), and is desperate to have a girl. So when little Swanhild (Swanny) is born in 1905, Asta is thrilled. A few years later another daughter, Marie, comes along - and the family is complete.

Asta is a conventional and conservative woman of her time but she's well-educated and loves to read - especially Charles Dickens in Danish. To assauge some of the loneliness Asta feels in the alien environs of England, she keeps a diary. In the journal, Asta talks about many things: daily activities, thoughts, feelings, people (children, husband, friends, relatives, servants, neighbors, acquaintances, etc.), food, clothes, homes, furniture, ornaments, parties, gossip, newspaper stories, and so on....anything that pops into her head. Asta's diary entries - spanning more than sixty years - are interspersed throughout the book, which goes back and forth between past and present.

After Asta's death (in her eighties) her oldest daughter Swanny finds the diaries. Swanny has the first couple of volumes translated from Danish to English and publishes them, as a sort of lark. To Swanny's surprise the diaries become wildly popular - a worldwide phenomenon! In time, additional volumes of the diary are published and Swanny, as the editor, becomes a celebrity in her own right. There are meetings with publishers, book signings, public appearances, photos in magazines, and world travel. After Swanny dies, her niece Ann (Marie's daughter) - a professional researcher - takes over as editor of the remaining diaries.

As the story unfolds a couple of 'mysteries' are revealed.

Swanny's conundrum: When Asta is widowed she moves in with Swanny, who has a rich successful husband and a lovely large house. Asta loves to socialize and - for her own 83rd birthday - arranges a lavish 'chocolate party' at Swanny's home. On the day of the party Swanny receives an anonymous letter that says ".....You are not your mother's child or your father's. They got you from somewhere when their own one died...."

Swanny, who always knew her father didn't like her, intuitively believes this. She confronts her mother, who (more or less) admits Swanny is not her natural born child, but refuses to say anything more.....ever! Swanny is devastated and haunted by this revelation, and desperately tries to discover her origins. When Swanny (and then Ann) get custody of the diaries, they study them for clues to Swanny's origin - but several vital pages are missing. For Swanny the enigma of her parentage has severe psychological consequences.

The Roper murder : In her 1905 diary Asta briefly mentions that her maid, Hansine, has become acquainted with Florence - the servant of a family called the Ropers. Hansine asks permission to invite her new friend Florence to tea, and Asta agrees.

Soon afterward Lizzie Roper is murdered and her toddler daughter Edith disappears. Lizzie's husband, Alfred Roper, is accused of murdering his wife - and the trial is avidly followed by the public.

Jump to the present and true crime stories are very popular. A producer named Cary is planning to make a movie about the old Roper case. She asks Ann (the current editor of the Asta diaries) for a peek at the yet unpublished diaries - to see if the Ropers are mentioned again. This leads to a loose collaboration between Cary and Ann as they look for information about the Roper affair.

'Asta's Book' is both a novel of psychological suspense and the story of Asta Westerby and her family. Asta's story is quite compelling. As Rasmus's fortunes rise and fall she goes from lower middle class to prosperity to struggling once again, before moving in with Swanny. I enjoyed the diary entries about Asta's fashionable clothes, Danish foods (blekage and kransekage), household trappings, love for Swanny, 'crush' on her driver, and so on. I also liked the description of the dollhouse Rasmus made for Ann, called Padanaram. This masterpiece took years to complete and was a faithful reproduction of the Westerby's posh home at the time. (I would have loved to have this dollhouse as a child. LOL)

The mystery portion of the story is also quite engaging. I wanted to know about Swanny's heritage and was intrigued by the various theories proposed by different characters. I was also eager to discover whether Alfred Roper was guilty or innocent of murdering his wife.

"Asta's Book" - published in 1993 - has the vibe of an 'old fashioned' mystery. It moves slowly and thoughtfully, contains provacative red herrings, and has no graphic violence (except for one slit throat). The book would appeal to a wide array of readers, including fans of literary novels, psychological suspense stories, and traditional mysteries. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

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