Elizabeth Jane Howard’s four Cazalet Chronicles – The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off — were great favourites of mine when they came out in the 1990s, and I read them all avidly, the first couple of volumes several times (rereading them as each new one came out and a few more times for good measure). They tell the story of a wealthy English family (but not Downton-Abbey-wealthy: the Cazalets made their money in trade) in the pre-, during and post-WW2 years, from 1937 to 1947. The original tetralogy is practically the definition of “sweeping family epic”: it covers the experiences of three generations of a large extended family, ranging with a wonderful omniscient voice through the perspectives of children, teenagers, the middle-aged and the elderly as their lives are impacted by the war and all the changes it brings.
There are so many things Howard does brilliantly in this series: wonderful characterization, brilliant description, note-perfect analysis of social mores and personal relationships and so much more, that all I can say is, if this sounds like the kind of thing you might like, pick up The Light Years (the first volume) and give it a try.
When I decided to collect a proper matching set of these books instead of the random assortment I had acquired over the years, I was shocked to learn there were, not the four books I’d read and loved many years ago, but five. Eighteen years after publishing Casting Off, and not long before her own death, Howard wrote a fifth volume that jumps ten years ahead of the end of the series (covering the years from 1956-1958) and tells us where the characters are at that point. So, of course I had to read that too.
As you might expect of a one-volume sequel to such a long and complex series, both set and written many years after the original, the fifth volume (All Change) is a mixed success. I did love revisiting the characters, and some of the changes that were coming to the Cazalets by the late 1950s (deaths of older characters, threat to the family business, potential loss of the old family home) are absolutely what might be expected 10 years after the end of the war. A way of life is coming to an end; some characters are able to move forward relatively happily with it, while others find themselves clinging to a time that will never return. All of that was appropriate and well-handled.
Where things go off the rails a bit in All Change is in Howard’s gallant attempt to corral her vast cast of characters. Some of them simply get left out or forgotten about in this last book (only the most glancing of references to Jessica Castle’s entire family, who got chapters and chapters in the original series despite not even being Cazalets). Howard has always written children’s points of view really well, but in this book she spends too much time writing scenes about the under-10 generation of children who were born between Casting Off and All Change (who readers don’t know or care about) at the expense of telling us more about the teenagers and young adults whose childhoods were chronicled in the original series and who we’re anxious to know more about. (A particularly egregious example is when Hugh’s son Wills, barely mentioned throughout the entire book, doesn’t make it for the big family reunion at the end of the book, and someone offhandedly mentions that it’s too bad Wills decided to spend Christmas with his girlfriend’s family — you know darn well Howard simply forgot Wills existed and tossed in that sentence when an editor reminded her of him).
The relationships among the family members would differ of course, in such a large extended family, and not everyone would keep in touch, but some of the distance between characters simply doesn’t make sense. Why would Polly have to introduce her husband to Aunt Rachel when Rachel was at their wedding — and in the nine or ten years since then, while they weren’t likely hanging out much, surely they would have seen each other once or twice? Why would Neville not recognize his own half-sister Juliette, when that branch of the family is not estranged from one another in any way? Yes, a young adult out living on his own might not see whole lot of his teenaged half-sister and might be shocked at how grown-up she now looks, but … not to the extent Neville is, and certainly not with the same results! (Don’t even get me started on the Neville/Juliette subplot — this is something an editor should have taken a firm line on and simply said “You can’t do that; it makes no sense.”) Yes, catching up with the lives of so many different characters was probably near-impossible, but there were so many missed opportunities and so many pages wasted on characters we didn’t care about, that it was sometimes frustrating.
All this sounds like I didn’t enjoy All Change or didn’t think it was a good conclusion to the series, but that’s not really true — I enjoyed visiting this world one more time, and I’m in awe of what Howard accomplished, even if not every character resolution was exactly what I’d have hoped for. It’s a great series and one I’m sure I’ll reread again sometime a few more years down the road. Rereading it made for a wonderful December project.