As an author, reading a novel written by a seventeen year old is occasionally an experience of envious scrutiny. The merest mention of age by the publisher in the foreword and back cover blurb is an invocation to comparison. "Seventeen eh?" "Really? Well let’s just see if she’s any good… or worth of publication." etc. If I think back to my literary output at the same age, I was nowhere near producing such accomplished prose as Miss Caltabiano, but to make that comparison alone doesn’t do the book or her writing justice.
The Seventh Miss Hatfield is a gentle and engaging story that unfolds through the narration of its central character, Cynthia, who, for reasons you will learn in the book, becomes the character of the title. A plot involving time travel and immortality follows, although the story emphasis remains on the characters and their interaction.
To an English reader of a certain age, there are some contrivances. Accepting gifts from strangers and following them back to their homes is not something we often do, nor is agreeing to work for them after being drugged and kidnapped, well at least, not as far as I know.
Miss Caltibiano has rationalised her plot premise and there are a set of rules for the would-be time traveller to follow. These rules surface as required to enforce the urgency of our central character’s mission, but never seem to press her enough to lose out in the choices she makes, despite the overall premise of tragic love-angst. As the story develops, one or two question marks arise from the text. There are some clichés of expression – ‘furrowed brows’ and ‘reveries’ appear quite often. Also, our heroine has a magical ability to get out of corsets on her own and ‘automobiles’ in the first years of the twentieth century appear to be distinctly quiet and easy to drive, not a crank handle, or wooden wheel in sight.
However, reducing the writing to its plot levers is to belittle it. There is an engaging tone to the narration, with some considerable nuance in places. You only note the naivety of the central character in hindsight, which is a testimony to Miss Caltabiano’s work in weaving the story around you. The voice of Cynthia feels fresh and honest throughout, even if she does make some poor choices at times and whilst she is an adult, she has grown up quickly through magic, justifying a certain level of naivety. At times she feels a bit passive and contrary. She tends to reflect rather than act at times and takes a long time to act on the things she reflects over. There are some nuanced supporting characters and a burgeoning sense of social commentary on hierarchies of the time, which could certainly be explored in more detail. The central character’s priorities of narration are at times a little frustrating and un-relatable to me as a reader, but that may be part of my not being the target audience.
The Seventh Miss Hatfield is a romance novel and perhaps a little bit misrepresented in the blurb and associated text as the science fiction frame is generally set back in priority to the romantic qualities of the story. However, the premise is a good one and clearly offers the writer plenty of opportunities for follow up work. A second novel in the series would allow the ideas to be explored in more detail, which I think they deserve.
Written on 29th September 2014 by Allen Stroud.
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