Wednesday 24 May 2023

Read in 2023 - 13: Lily


by Rose Tremain

If I remember correctly, my sister bought this paperback last year at our favourite bookshop, The Little Ripon Bookshop. When we're in Ripon, we always make it a point to go there, and we never leave without great new books - limited only by the fact that every item will need to fit in our bags and be carried between trains and across train stations on the long journey home.

Many of the books my sister buys for herself end up being read by me and our Mum, too. We do not have the same taste in reading material, but more often than not, a book she buys will appeal enough to me that I borrow it from her sooner or later.

"Lily" was one such book. The author's name seemed to ring a bell, but upon searching my blog, I find that I had not read anything by Rose Tremain before.

In this book, we follow Lily from the icy November night of her birth, when she is abandoned and left to die but survives against all odds. As it was the custom then, foundlings were sent to foster families for the first six years of their lives and then returned to the institution that provided for them until they were old enough to make it on their own.

In theory, some of that sounded as good as all the institutions and mechanisms in place today that are about the welfare of children. But as we all know, not today and certainly not back then did things really work out for the children's best interest. There was (and often still is) hardship and abuse, and the result was a vast number of traumatised young people leaving such institutions with not much hope for a good life.

Lily gets a chance at happiness, though: She finds employment and her own (very modest) lodgings, makes a friend in her employer and finds solace in her Sunday visits to church, not for anything to do with religion, but to look at the coloured light coming through the stained glass windows.

But a terrible secret never really lets go of her, and she knows it is only a question of time before her past will catch up with her.

There is sorrow, but also humour in the book. Some characters come to life and acquire colour in the reader's mind, such as Lily herself, but a few remain two-dimensional and very black and white. This might have been the author's intention, adding to what other reviews have described as fairy-tale elements of the story. (There is nothing supernatural about it; everything is very well researched, and the reader learns plenty about Victorian London, wig-making, the way orphans and foundlings were treated, running a farm, and even some police work.)

I enjoyed the read and can recommend the book, even though I can't say I engaged as fully with the main characters as the enthusiastic reviews say.

Speaking of reviews - do you think it is necessary to cover a book inside and out with blurbs from reviews? Have you ever bought a book because of sentences such as "Heartbreaking, wonderful and totally unputdownable!" or "Another masterpiece by the author of [insert other title by the same writer]" printed on the cover?

While a brief summary of what the book is about can be decisive for me, the reviews (or their excerpts) definitely are not. I still read each and every one of them, though.

Rose Tremain has her own wikipedia entry but not, it seems, her own website. Still, you can find plenty about her and her books online.


  1. I might get interested in a book from reviews, but probably not from just very short quotes like that. "the author of XXX" may be helpful if I happen to have read that other book, though. Not alwarys easy to tell why one sometimes feels drawn to a book one never heard of before - but it happens. The cover is not unimportant - even with Kindle books that may sometimes be what catches one's eye.

    1. Agreed on all points, Monica. As you know, I have found precious books - such as what has become one of my favourite series, the Inspector Oldroyd books - from your blog :-)

  2. I often get book recommendations from the blogs I read (like yours!) This one isn't at my library, tho, so I won't get to read it.

    1. Me too, Ellen, especially Monica's (see my reply to her above) :-)