Every now and then Amazon’s recommendation system really gets it right and tosses me something like The Bride’s Farewell, a quirky and wonderful historical novel. We meet Pell Ridley on the dawn of her marriage to blacksmith Birdie Finch, as she sneaks out of her house taking little with her but a white horse, an apron, and her youngest brother, Bean. It’s panic that has set Pell off — Birdie is kind and steady but she feels her horizons closing in, and she bolts. It’s August 12, 1850– something. And that very combination of precision and opacity sets the tone for Meg Rosoff’s story-telling. We’re in deeply rural England, near the New Forest, and most of the scenes could have taken place just as easily in 1650 or 1750. Pell, as a girl on her own off to seek her fortune, is suspect. Her skills — blacksmithing and horse-coping — are men’s skills. She is, right from the start, plucky and resourceful and generous, so we root for her. But the path she’s taken is fraught is difficulty, so drama results. And right from the start, you’re sucked into the story.
Ancient white-chalk carving of a horse; did you know they're all over England? Pell sees one in her wanderings.
Pell heads for Salisbury, hoping to get work, but before long she’s lost both the horse and the brother. Her drive to find them is the motor for the rest of the book, which takes a circuitous route to find a conditional kind of closure. Along the way Pell meets a family of Gypsies, a sexy poacher we know only as “Dogman,” and many horses. I love horse books so that part was very satisfying: Rosoff makes the animals as interesting as the humans.
The unusual timeless quality of the book points to its most remarkable feature, though, which is that it’s almost a fairy tale. It seems to take place in an illustration rather than in the actual world. Rosoff doesn’t engage in the showy detail so important to some historical novels. The Bride’s Farewell almost seems Jungian; there’s some strange doubling (Pell’s family, the gypsy family; the dark, handsome, rakish poacher, her dark handsome, rakish father) and a dreamy tone throughout.
Incessantly, it seemed, life plagued her with responsibilities, made her fall in love, ripped away any consolation she might find. Sisters and parents, brothers and horses, Dicken and John Kirby, Birdie and Dogman. Even Pa’s awful house with the tilting floor. All staked their claim on her, each conspiring to weigh down her soul. As soon as she accepted one set of circumstances, another leaped up to mock her. Nothing stayed the same. Every day brought unwanted connections, losses and complications that broke her heart.
Well, yes. For most of us, that’s the way life works, though on a lesser scale. And we’d all do well to imitate Pell, taking a deep breath and simply making the best of it.