Book Review: Midnight Blue by Simone van der Vlugt.

“Midnight Blue is a vibrant blend of mystery, drama and romance. Light on the history but heavy on the twists. A book as emotional, intriguing and mysterious as the colour of the pottery it takes its name from.”

* ISBN: 9780008212100
* Imprint: Harper
* On Sale: 04/05/2017
* Format: Paperback
* Trimsize: 13.000
* Pages: 336
* List Price: £7.99
* BIC1 F00V00000
* BIC2 F00Y0T000
https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008212100/midnight-blue

This is the story of Catrin, a newly widowed young woman running from a secret, while also chasing a dream. Set in the 1650s during the height of the Dutch golden age, Simone van de Vlugt has crafted a polished drama, that keeps the reader guessing from page one. Although the character driven plot meanders now and again plot twists do hold the reader’s interest. Inhabiting this world is a fairly large supporting cast, men who tug at Catrin’s affections as she strives to realise her ambition, some friends and a few enemies, the most persistent of whom is the ever present shadow of fate. Watch out for historical cameos from some Dutch masters, and take nothing for granted. As plot twists pile up things get complicated, Catrin ultimately loses control of her destiny and perhaps discovers she was never in control of it to begin with. There is admittedly not as much period detail as there could have been and as a result there is a reduced level of escapism. This can be put this down to the tense which is first person present, but tradeoff is that the reader is put right next to Catrin and can feel the emotion as she feels it. Writing about her own country, the author is adept at putting the reader where she wants them to be.

Holland was then a republic of united Protestant states that was still fighting to maintain independence while at the same time growing wealthy from the skill and enterprise of her merchants and craftsmen. Catrin hails from a provincial backwater. The death of her husband gives her the opportunity to sell up and get out of dodge. At first her goals are small, she wants to go into service and make enough money to set herself up as a pottery painter. With the cash earned from the sale of her late husband’s goods she sets off to nearby Alkmaar which to her seems a long way to go, so when her job falls through and she has to go to Amsterdam to find work she feels as if she has put continents between herself and the world she once knew. It is in Amsterdam that she comes close to realising her dream, but also where her past catches up to her.

At first she seems a character laden with many contradictions, there are allot of questions that need answered, and I’m not sure she ever answers them all. The book is weakest in terms of history and the odd infiltration of modern enlightenment. As already noted, first person present is an interesting choice for a historical novel, as it removes distance and focuses on emotions. Personally I don’t think there is enough period detail to make it work effectively, partly because here it creates an ambiguous, rather colourless turn of phrase that hails more from a polite modern tea party than being like what someone from the 17th century would say.

The lead Catrin, is nevertheless revealed as a strong, ambitious but impulsive woman who is somewhat at war with her own better judgement. This is demonstrated when we discover that the reason for marrying in the first place was that she fallen pregnant, but the baby was stillborn leaving her in a abusive marriage to a drunkard. Is this why she was so eager to up sticks and shed the Windows weed and all that? Or is there something darker at play? This is a book that compels you to question the motives of each character. Catrin is portrayed as a dreamer, and seems to have never fitted into her small hometown, indeed she has a dreamers loathing of this mode of life. Though she fears the distance of the city, she is lured to it by its excitement. She is therefore personally brave, but only thinks she’s independent, because either through cultural pressure or comforting delusion, she proves herself in a way the opposite.

I followed this Hard to pin down heroine on her mysterious and daring choice to free herself from village drudgery by becoming a city domestic servant, and then onwards as she chased a cherished dream that suddenly becomes possible through the predicament she finds herself in. Throughout I was constantly trying to figure out wether I was sympathetic to her, at first I was, and then I found myself unable to maintain my sympathy. So the nuances certainly keep you guessing.

Readers should pay attention to the first few chapters, because they inform allot of what happens next. It doesn’t take very long for her to fall for freedom loving, devil may care Matthias, who sets her up as a housekeeper in his wealthy brother’s home, only to have him leave her on an expedition to the east. It is slightly questionable that a young, unmarried nobody from the sticks with no experience in service would be hired on as a housekeeper, but on we go.

Luckily by that time she’s found another chap to try to resist. Matthias’s 3rd brother, Evert who runs a pottery painting workshop producing Delft Blue china, he’s a damaged, strong silent, widower who is artistic too; Note to diary: He so totally gets her! This obviously this is where the real tragedy and conflict comes into it. But she does also have that nagging secret, which it turns out has influenced much of what she has done so far, and leads one to wonder if she is indeed chasing her dreams or being chased by her past. As plot twists pile up things get even more complicated for the heroine, Catrin ultimately loses control of her destiny and perhaps discovers she was never in control of it to begin with.

Midnight Blue is a vibrant blend of mystery, drama and romance, light on the history but heavy on the twists. A book as emotional, intriguing and mysterious as the colour of the pottery it takes its name from.

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