Neither “A Long Way From Verona”, nor “Crusoe’ Daughter”, which I reviewed on February 4, 2014, are considered to be Jane Gardam’s best novels. It is hard to tell.
The backdrop for the story is England during World War II. The blitz is ongoing in London and Cissie Comberbach has been sent to a country public school to be kept safe. She is not a principal character but one of a group of young girls of middle school age at Cleveland Sands who are each growing up in their own way. Jessica Vye is the principal character. Her family’s living standard has declined since moving to Cleveland Sands. Her father has become the local pastor of socialist leaning and her mother is endlessly busy with the church. Jessica is loved, but there is distance between children and parents at that age and time. She is intent on becoming a writer after a guest at her school politely tells her she can write.
Ms. Gardam has a wonderful ear for young women and this is a lovely coming of age novel for girls interested in becoming writers. The war is deftly handled. It is told from a child’s perspective. It exists, but it is not pervasive. There were villages where life went on. Nearly normal, save for air raids, children’s lives were protected by their parents. As in “Crusoe’s Daughter” distinction between classes is evident without weighing down the narrative.
A strong element is the value of a mentor to young people. After substantial time and effort Jessica writes a story which she believes will be the best in her class. In volume it dwarfs the other stories. Pride can be a distraction. Her teacher, whom she dislikes, tells her that anything you write that you really like should be ripped up. She judges the story the worst in the class. Criticism that might have validity given too harshly and too early may be needlessly discouraging. Fortunately, the more senior school mistress manages to undo the damage and helps Jessica mature socially and as a writer.
“A Long Way From Verona” is a story well told by a gifted writer. It is a good choice for middle school girls, even while being enjoyable for adults.