Ashton Hall: A Novel
by Lauren Belfer
Paperback- $13.88

An American woman and her son unearth the buried secrets and past lives of an English manor house in this masterful and riveting novel from ...

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  "Interesting, but a few too many themes" by thewanderingjew (see profile) 09/18/22

Ashton Hall, Lauren Belfer, author, Kristin Sieh, Jayne Entwistle, narrators
This is a multilayered story that takes place in the present time, but is very much interested in the past. As the mystery of a newly discovered female skeleton is investigated, the book explores not only the question of the identity and age of the skeleton, but also the injustice of Britain’s religious history, our different sexual preferences and beliefs about fidelity and monogamy, the well-being and treatment of troubled children, women’s rights, equality and the justice system. The issue of secrets, trust and loyalty are all exposed as the woman’s past is explored and revealed, bit by bit.
Hannah Larson Donovan has been the “ward” of her beloved Uncle Christopher since her childhood, but he is not really related to her by blood. He was very close to Margot, her mother. Her mother never revealed who her father was, and she is now dead. Christopher cares deeply for Hannah and Nicky. Her husband Kevin will soon reveal secrets to him that are unknown to Hannah, but will challenge her way of life and have a profound influence on her future.
Uncle Christopher is now ill with Cancer. He lives in the residences at Ashton Hall, most of which is now largely a museum open to the public. Hannah leaves America with her son Nicholas to visit him, believing that she will tend to his needs during the summer months. Instead, when they arrive in England, they find that he is leaving the very next day to seek an alternative, experimental treatment back in America. He is taking his aide Rafe with him. He tells them to remain at Ashton Hall until his return, and he hopes that she will use this time to finish her dissertation that she had abandoned in order to take care of Nicky, since he has special needs and requires a great deal of attention. Christopher has even arranged for Alice to be a caregiver for Nicky so Hannah can work.
When Nicky disobeys the rules, impulsively leaves his uncle’s apartment without telling his mother where he is going, takes Duncan, his Uncle’s beloved dog who is his friend, and explores Ashton Hall, in remote places that are difficult to navigate and are forbidden to him, he discovers a secret room, and through a peephole, he spies bones laid out on the floor, dressed in a women’s tattered dress. He can see little more because the room is sealed, and only the peephole offers a view. Later, because there is a prie-dieu in the room wit her, they assume that she is a Catholic, possibly locked away because she is a heretic.
Nicky is an impulsive 9 year-old, with emotional challenges that the author identifies as neurodiverse in her comments at the end of the book. He is subject to disrespectful, rude and angry outbursts in which he curses uncontrollably. He also has fits of violent behavior. He does not actually understand the concept of respect for rules or authority, and he marches to the beat of his own drummer because of the wiring in his brain. He believes he must have all his questions answered and explained. He does not understand deceitfulness from others, yet he, himself, often behaves deceitfully, simply because he must. He simply has to do what needs to be done.
Hannah and Kevin refuse to medicate him because the drugs change him into someone without affect, someone totally different. Still, they have taken him for evaluation and treatment for his mental challenges and treat him behaviorally, hoping they will be able to control him and train him to interact in the world in a socially acceptable way. Sometimes their approach works, sometimes it doesn’t, and then he has a meltdown which can be dangerous to those around him. They must be vigilant. Hannah and puts Nicky above all else. She does not advise others of his mental problems unless it becomes absolutely necessary. She hides injuries he has inflicted upon her and himself. She lies about how they occur so that she is not accused of child abuse. Nicky is very literal and very focused; he is very intelligent and has a fantastic memory, which enables him to learn and achieve success when he puts his mind to it, but he also grows very frustrated when something obvious, is not obvious to him. He takes in all information literally which causes him to lose complete control, at times.
There are almost too many secrets in this book that will cause the reader to wonder about many things. Why would someone want to be locked away, alone, forever? How could someone justify the willful murder of another? When a centuries old secret is revealed, would a nine year-old precocious child be given a place of honor and prominence and really be involved in the actual murder investigation? The author identifies the issue of the treatment of neurodivergent children that appear on the spectrum of many disorders, one of which is autism, another is ADHD, and another is Tourette’s. Should they be mainstreamed without informing those interacting with them? Does the behavioral modification treatment help the child permanently so that right from wrong is understood and not misinterpreted as subject to their own needs at the time, right or wrong? Is subjecting those unaware to possible danger from Nicky appropriate? The reader will wonder if Hannah and Kevin’s approach to his care is fair to the others around him.
As the mystery is resolved and diverse relationships are revealed and explored, personalities are illuminated and sometimes are not what they seem to be, it will raise questions for the reader that are good for a group discussion. What constitutes fidelity in all kinds of relationships? Is the sexual relationship or the sex of the lover what constitutes the infidelity? What constitutes an open marriage in same sex relationships and heterosexual relationships? What is a monogamous relationship? Should a child with a disorder that endangers others be mainstreamed without medication and proper supervision?
As the investigation reveals the background and identity of the skeleton, Isabella Cresham, it leads to the contradiction of many previously held beliefs, both in the present lives of those investigating and in the lives of those who have since died. All things are not what they seem, as this book cannot be judged by its cover. There were moments when I felt that the dialogue tended to the trite and melodramatic. It made the story ring false. I would have liked the character’s pasts to have been more fully developed. I did not feel I really understood who Kevin was or who Hannah or Christopher truly were. Their backgrounds were spotty and told in bits and pieces. The only really fully developed character was Nicky who always moved the narrative forward. Hannah’s side romances, Kevin’s relationship with Tim, Christopher and Rick, Constance and Jill, all seemed incidental, and in the end, almost distracting.
I liked the book because it illuminated the abuses of women, also for its historic revelations, its examination of relationships and communication, open marriage and its philosophy of dealing with a troubled child. I liked the references to art and literature and the fact that it left me with a desire to learn more about certain subjects, like neurodivergent children and the approach to their treatment. Also, after reading the book, I thought about how we do not keep written records any longer; handwritten journals and diaries are things of the past, and I was saddened to think that history will no longer be recorded as honestly as it was, since it can now easily be manipulated by technology.
The relationships of the characters exposed the reality of flawed human beings and the way they communicate, their secrets and their lies. It exposed the need for women to be independent and secure, not reliant on men for their well being, but it also showed that women have to take their own ambition more seriously and devote themselves more seriously to their work in order to improve their circumstances. It pointed out the differences between the British personalities and the American personalities, exposing the flaws of both. It opens up a discussion of the difference between deviance and dysfunction.
However, at times, there were just too many issues to think about. For instance, even the story about Hannah’s mother, who was on a Kindertransport, escaping from Germany, raising the specter of the Holocaust, which really had nothing to do with the novel left me wondering why it was even mentioned. There were too many tangents that became a distraction. In the end, I wondered, what was the story really about? Was it about challenged children, challenged relationships, historic cruelty, religious injustice, marital infidelity, the ugly American, the problems of homosexuality, or the unidentified skeleton, to name just a few themes that arose?

  "" by [email protected] (see profile) 01/19/23

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