The Uninvited Guests
Sadie Jones’s engaging tale of life before the First World War is intriguing on a number of levels. The Uninvited Guests (288 pages, Harper, $14.99) tells the story of an almost well-heeled family struggling to keep Sterne, the country house they love. As Edward Swift, step-father and husband, goes to the city to attempt to secure a loan, the remaining family members try to put a fine face on the situation and celebrate the birthday of Emerald, the oldest daughter.
There are three children in the family, Horace Torrington’s children, it seems: Emerald is a girl just poised on becoming a beautiful young woman; her older brother Clovis is twenty and utterly bored with his life, and especially with his new step-father who seems unable to connect with the boy; finally, there is Isabel, or Smudge, who is the creative child who spends her time drawing her animals and walking on the roof.
Emerald and Clovis understand each other, and when they go off together riding their favorite horses, they break through the tensions of family life and seem to connect. Often, though, they are at cross-purposes because Clovis simply does not care.
Charlotte Torrington Swift is a nervous woman who loves the house and dreads its loss. She has little faith in her husband’s ability to save the place. She spends a lot of the novel locked away in her room, letting the servants Florence and Myrtle keep the family fed and protected.
The shaky equilibrium of the family is shaken further when old friends—Patience and Ernest Sutton—visit to help celebrate Emerald’s birthday. These visitors both challenge the Torringtons with memories of the people they used to be and awake in them a kind of sexual desire they have not experienced before. Emerald finds herself gazing into the bespectacled eyes of Ernest in hopes of finding the boy she knew, and in doing so, she falls deeply in love. Clovis finds he wants to spend every minute with Patience, but he is not quite sure why.
As party preparations get under way, an odd assortment of people arrive at the house, with the story that there has been a train crash and a number of people will have to be accommodated. The family shunts the group into a back room and tries to figure out what to do; but one of the group singles himself out as a special friend of the family.
Things go from bad to worse when the number of uninvited guests increases and the family begins to feel embattled. Even worse, the guest who had seemed to single himself out as a friend becomes a terror, introducing the kind of drinking game that leaves everyone devastated, but not before he has attacked Charlotte and accused her of being unfaithful to her husband.
After they come out of this drunken haze, they manage to find beds for all the guests and even to cope with Smudge’s brilliant idea of getting her pony into the upper floors of the house. Getting the horse down becomes a family enterprise that brings all the young people together.
In the morning the guests are gone and they begin to put the house back together. Edward Swift comes home with a shocking tale of a train crash, and everyone has to wonder where those quests actually came from. The real question, though, is whether Edward has found the money to save the house.