When young socialite Flora Poste is orphaned, she decides to move to her cousin Judith Starkadder’s farm in Sussex where her Aunt Ada Doom, who saw “something nasty in the woodshed” as a girl and has not been right in the head ever since, rules over the family with an iron hand, and everyone seems to live in abject misery. She immediately decides to help her relatives escape their squalid and dreary existence by “tidying up” the place and its inhabitants.
A parody of the novels of Thomas Hardy or D.H. Lawrence, this is a funny but flawed book. I genuinely loved the beginning because the language Gibbons uses in her descriptions and dialogues is hilarious, as are the names she bestows on her characters; they range from the Reverend Elderberry Shiftglass to Agony Beetle and Dick Hawk-Monitor, while the animals have names like Viper (a horse), Big Business (a bull), Graceless (a cow who is inexplicably missing a leg), or Feckless (also a cow). Protagonist Flora is a terrible know-it-all busybody but Gibbons nonetheless manages to keep her from being unlikeable, and to make readers root for her plans, while most of the other characters are at least interesting in their strangeness and clichedness.
Unfortunately, the story loses a lot of steam and quality over the course of the book. The careful and ingenious approach of the beginning is virtually abandoned by the halfway point; from then on, everything feels rushed and haphazard, and the exaggerations and caricatures become tiring. Conflicts are resolved in two pages, sometimes even out of the blue, solutions more or less present themselves, and the big confrontation between Flora and Aunt Ada Doom is so anticlimactic that I could hardly believe it. That may be intentional, but instead of funny or clever, it felt silly and half-baked to me. And yes, it is a parody, so silly is generally fine, but this ending simply lacked imagination and thus became a huge letdown.
Overall, it is an amusing and entertaining book that has some laugh-out-loud moments and a lot of sharp-witted commentary. Some parts, however, are underdeveloped and markedly less creative than they could have been, and, disappointingly, the answers to some very fundamental questions regarding Flora’s heritage and Aunt Ada’s trauma are never even given.