Julie Klassen’s most recent release, The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill, is the first installment in Klassen’s first series. Set in the English countryside, the tale sparks visions of BBC miniseries such as Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford.
The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill is a tale of Ivy Hill – a small town with a diverse cast of characters, each struggling with his/her own circumstances. The book centers mainly around the inn, The Bell. After its owner suddenly dies, his widow, Jane Bell, becomes the reluctant owner. The inn has fallen into disrepair and Jane is overwhelmed at the prospect before her, but unless she can find a way to make it profitable again she and the entire town will suffer from the inevitable consequences of the failed business.
I found the beginning of the novel to be a slow start, centering around a character with whom I had trouble identifying. The novel’s introduction to Jane Bell was a listless and unemotional one. As I kept reading this lessoned, primarily because of Jane’s own struggles and situation. Jane is a character who is, initially, exactly as listless and emotionless as the novel portrayed. She is uncertain of how to run a business and, as such, remains alone in her cottage without attempting any caretaking. Hence the inn’s continued disrepair.
By reading further, however, life becomes more infused with emotion as Jane’s mother-in-law visits the inn. Thora, struggling with her own insecurities and place in the world, has a business-like and strong-willed demeanor that is at odds with Jane’s own meek manner.
The story owes significant nod to miniseries like Cranford as it is more a weaving of an entire town’s cast of characters than a story centered around one. Jane Bell is part of the story’s focus, but the inn, The Bell, is the greater focus. Lives of individual characters intersect to create a vivid picture of life in the small village. For readers looking for romance, there are touches here but not many. Instead, the story relies on rich detail and how the lives of several women find that their struggles and successes all affect the lives of one another.
I was hesitant to begin this novel for two reasons. First, I have found some of Klassen’s writings to be enjoyable and others to fall flat for me. Second, quite a few reviews from fans who, presumably, love most of Klassen’s works, were less than glowing. Combine this with the slow(ish) start to the novel and its characterization of Jane and I doubted I’d find much enjoyment in the novel. However, I’ve ended the read delightfully surprised by the cast of characters and quirky touches Klassen added to the town of Ivy Hill. As a fan of many a BBC miniseries, I feel this one found a home in that genre. It’s not a perfect story – but I found many successful qualities. All in all, it is a delightful read. Others reviewers may mention it being slow and (as I previously mentioned) without significant romance. But that is the point of this sub-genre – and it works beautifully to walk a reader slowly and calmly through the rich English countryside.
If you’re looking for standard Julie Klassen, this isn’t it. It’s a new style and a different voice. But if you’re looking for a quiet, entertaining read that centers around several characters and leaves you with the promise of more, I certainly would recommend this one.
(For further reading, I recommend checking out the Tales from Ivy Hill website which offers information on the fictional village, it’s characters, and the English setting that inspired it).