A Brief History of Montmaray
by Michelle Cooper
October 13, 2009
Borrowed from Library
Synopsis: “There’s a fine line between gossip and history, when one is talking about kings.”
Sophie FitzOsborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.
A Brief History of Montmaray is a heart-stopping tale of loyalty, love, and loss, and of fighting to hold on to home when the world is exploding all around you.
This book certainly owes a great debt to Dodie Smith’s classic I Capture the Castle, but if a reader stops there and assumes it’s simply a poor imitation of that book, she’ll be missing out on a fantastic historical read. Cooper seems very aware of the classic, and I can only assume that naming the protagonist’s potential love interest ‘Simon’ is both homage and acknowledgement.
The setting of A Brief History... is a character in itself – a windswept and rocky island just south of the English Channel. Montmaray has been ruled by the FitzOsbournes for hundreds of years, but now the castle is falling down, the furnishings have been sold off, and only the mad king, his teenage daughter, his two nieces and a very small handful of villagers remain in residence. We’re told that the majority of the Montmaray men were killed on a single day during World War I, and the families that remained moved to England for more opportunities. The very isolation of the island is both a benefit – neither France nor England nor Spain ever felt the need to try to conquer the tiny country – and a huge problem as the royal family and villagers alike wait for passing ships for their mail, foodstuffs, and even doctors when necessary.
Our narrator is Sophie, the sixteen year old niece of King John who might be slightly mad. Her older brother Toby is the heir to the Kingdom since their cousin Veronica is excluded from succession due to Salic Law. I really enjoyed Sophie’s narrative, and I particularly enjoyed the journal format – instead of the more immediate first person narration typical of so many YA books, we get her perspective from slightly greater distance. Sometimes journal books read simply like a past tense first person narrative, but it’s obvious that Sophie is considering both what she writes and how events relate to the past and present on Montmaray.
I especially love the character development that occurs as Sophie matures through the course of the book. She starts as rather young for her age but develops quickly as concerns about her family and home along with a potential war take the place of worries about boys (even knowing just one boy not related to her, the worries abound) and her place as the boring one in the family.
All of our views of the other characters then are obviously through Sophie’s lens, and while she’s unflinching when she perceives a flaw, the love and admiration she has for Veronica, her brother, and even her little sister Henry is clear in every interaction. Each of the teenage characters comes to life fully realized (therefore avoiding another flaw I often find in journal books). The adult characters are less nuanced, but even that makes sense from the teenage perspective especially in a world where a responsible adult’s presence is very much lacking.
The plot starts slowly as Sophie discusses daily events, her family relationships, her rather guilty desire to go to London and do a Season in society, and money troubles. Being a Princess on Montmaray doesn’t mean much in the way of comforts. The ceiling leaks, drafts abound, and none of them have proper clothes. We get a good deal of Montmaray history – mostly in amusing anecdotes or when discussing Veronica’s obsession with writing a history of their kingdom. Once the story picks up though, it seriously picks up and soon there are German operatives exploring the island, bombers overhead, and a suspected relationship between Sophie’s brother Toby and her crush (who may or may not be the son of the King).
I can’t wait to read the sequel to A Brief History… (which I’m avoiding naming because the title is definitely a spoiler for events in the first book), and I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in a look at a tiny (and cold! I kept needing to put on a sweater as I read) island kingdom as the second World War approaches. Or, conversely, anyone interested in a coming of age story (and aren’t we all if we read YA) set within a family and political drama.