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A Reader of Fictions: Review: The Passing Bells

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: The Passing Bells

The Passing Bells
Passing Bells, Book 1

Author: Phillip Rock
Pages: 448
Publisher: William Morrow
Source: Publisher via TLC Book Tours

Description from Goodreads:
Before Downton Abbey, there was Abingdon Pryory, the elegant country home of the Grevilles—a titled English family who, along with their servants, see their world turned upside down when England goes to war. Once their well-kept lawns and whirling social seasons give way to the horrors of World War I, no one, upstairs or downstairs, is left untouched. For fans of sweeping historical fiction, the reissue of Phillip Rock's New York Times bestseller The Passing Bells is a breathtaking family saga not to be missed.

First Sentence: "The dawn came early, tinting a cloudless sky the palest shade of green."

Review:
First published in 1978, The Passing Bells has gotten a new lease on life, thanks to the popularity of the BBC show Downton Abbey. As you can see from the description, this book is being marketed as similar to Downton, and, thankfully, there is some truth in that. However, the focus in The Passing Bells is much more on history than on romantic drama. The Passing Bells reads more like Herman Wouk's Winds of War in a Downton-like setting.

The Passing Bells gets off to a rather slow start, introducing the myriad characters, but not delving too deeply to any one of them. This portion before the war is most reminiscent of Downton Abbey, but was also my least favorite part, because it lacked drama to pull me in and I did not yet know the characters well enough to be more than mildly interested in them. Given the 500+ pages in the book, I feared I might regret my decision to be on the tour for all three novels in this series, but, thankfully, the novel picked up for me about 150 pages in.

In Downton Abbey, WWI happens largely off-screen, and it's over quite quickly. The show races through history, but Rock lingers. He does not gloss over the war or keep the perspective more on the romances. He also shows off more of the dark side of war, which may have been his goal in composing the series. Rock highlights this time period as the turning point in England from the time of the landed estates to a more modern sensibility.

The Passing Bells encompasses the whole of WWII, with an emphasis on the first couple years of the conflict. The characters in The Passing Bells have roles in the war that range from soldier to nurse to doctor to journalist to living a slightly reduced life back in England. There's a great scope of British experiences during the war, all done very well. If you love historical fiction about World War I, The Passing Bells is a must read.

Rock develops a good cast of characters, some of whom are even reminiscent of characters in Downton Abbey, like Lydia who reminds me a lot of Lady Mary at her most scheming. I do wish there were more of an even focus on the female characters. The men receive a lot more attention than the women, who mostly appear only in relation to the male characters. The book does pass the Bechdel test, but only just barely.

Rock's The Passing Bells is a family drama of large scope that poses serious questions about the nature of modern warfare. History fans will not want to miss this. I am looking forward to reading the next installment of the trilogy quite soon.

Rating: 4/5

Favorite Quote: "'Ever first novelist feels that the story of his life and his family is a world-shaking event that simply screams for print. I went through that stage myself, Martin. I was twelve at the time, and I suddenly noticed something that perhaps you have noted yourself—that I simply do not look at all like my father. Well, I began to ponder on that and reached the febrile conclusion that I was the result of a liaison between my mother and the King of Spain. Then, filled with plans for an epic saga of my first twelve years on earth, about the little English Jew who was in reality a bastard claimant to a Catholic throne, I went browsing in the attic and found a trunk. In that trunk were tintypes of my father and his long-dead sister, Rose. I was exactly like her, a carbon copy of the poor departed dear.'"

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11 Comments:

Blogger Jenni @ Alluring Reads said...

I really like this cover! I would totally pick this up at the store and then put it back down when I realized it was historical. For some reason we just don't get a long, but I have to say that your reviews for quite a few historical novels make me want to give the genre another try. This one sounds really good. I haven't watched Downton Abbey but everyone seems to love it quite a bit. I like that this one doesn't skip past the war and delves into it a bit more because it has people who are directly involved in various ways.

January 14, 2013 at 9:11 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

Ha, I love this cover too! Her dress is so pretty! :)

Gah! I would love if you discovered an affection for historical fiction. You should try Out of the Easy, because it really feels pretty contemporary and I think you're enjoy the action and characters. Who knows, though?

January 14, 2013 at 9:13 AM  
Blogger Audra said...

Great review -- I think you nailed it in terms of what it is and isn't, and conveyed the feeling. I'm finishing it up today and kind of overwhelmed at the thought of writing my review! BUT I am keen for the next two books (where ever they may be!).

January 14, 2013 at 1:03 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

My goodness, yes! I am not sure where the series is going to go? To their kids? Pick up where it left off? Most of the people are married off, so I feel like they'll need some new characters. Martin's back in the US; the daughter's in Canada...

This review was easy to write, but I feel like I should have more to say, but the only option would have been to delve deeper into the individual characters which might have done the plot a disservice.

January 14, 2013 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Kat Balcombe said...

YAY historical fiction. And WWI historical fiction at that - WWII is much more common, so WWI still has that air of the mysterious. I've never seen Downton Abbey because I'd probably get lost in watching it for hours on end. I'm definitely going to try and track this down. I'm intrigued that it goes into the darker side of the war.

Thanks for bringing this one to my attention :-D

January 14, 2013 at 2:38 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

I thought of you when I was writing the review, because I think it will be right up your Aussie alley! Oh man, you should see Downton. You should. It is worth the lost hours.

January 14, 2013 at 3:17 PM  
Blogger Christina (Christinareadsya) said...

I've only recently started watching Downtown Abbey, but I love it and it sounds like this book emulates some of the greatness of that show and adds some of its own. (A little sad that the female characters don't get that much attention, because it doesn't seem that way in Downtown, but I really do like that quote.)

January 14, 2013 at 5:21 PM  
Blogger Wendy Darling said...

I have a love/hate relationship with historical fiction, so I'm ashamed to say this, but...I like it when there's more soapy romance in them. (!! I admitted it !!) I'm afraid you lost me at WINDS OF WAR, hah. But it's awesome that this turned out to be such a good read for you.

I like Downton Abbey quite a bit myself, too. :)

Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

January 14, 2013 at 8:09 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Well, it doesn't EMULATE the show because it came 35 years before, but I get what you mean. Unfortunately, the male author from the 70s focuses more on the men. This should perhaps not be surprising, but still makes me pout, because this could have been even better.

January 15, 2013 at 9:45 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

Oooh, I love soapy romance too, so do not worry about judgment from this quarter. Did you read Gilt by Katherine Longshore? That book has so much scandal AND accurate history. <3

If Winds of War didn't work for you, this might not be ideal for you.

January 15, 2013 at 9:46 AM  
OpenID heathertlc said...

I love a book with a sweeping scope, provided that the author can pull it all together ... sounds like Rock did just that!

Thanks for being on the tour.

January 18, 2013 at 10:17 PM  

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