Sunday, March 3, 2019

Book review: A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett


And here it is folks - my first book review of 2019 😊

Since the start of the year, I have faithfully stood by Ken Follett and it seems like the ensuing months have plenty more in store for me! Here is another one of Follett's novels that I deemed worthy of review. This is a book that I finished fairly quickly and that usually (but not necessarily) serves as an indication of a positive verdict. 

A Dangerous Fortune is a novel that was penned by the Welsh author in the year 1993. The story is set against the backdrop of collapse of a bank in the 19th century. It is a saga of love, power and revenge, set amid the wealth and decadence of Victorian England. 

The book also features Follett's first female villain, the domineering and unscrupulous Augusta. 

***Plot***

 Contains spoilers

The book begins on a sombre note with an incident that culminates in tragedy. Young Peter Middleton is found dead as a result of drowning in a swimming-hole of the prestigious Windfield school. Five young boys are at the scene of the crime but what really transpired is shrouded in mystery. Hugh Pilaster is pulled out of the school immediately following his father's suicide over bankruptcy. South American nationals Tonio Silva and Micky Miranda may know a bit more than they are letting on. Edward Pilaster offers an explanation that is not contested by anyone except for the dead boy's family. The tragedy sets a ominous tone for the ensuing treachery of the next three decades.

The illustrious Pilaster banking family based in London is controlled by a manipulative matriarch. The Pilasters are wealthy and well-respected but with twisted family dynamics. The inscrutable Augusta Pilaster leaves no stone unturned when it comes to advocating for her husband Joseph and protecting the interests of her son Edward. She despises Hugh from the time his father Tobias (brother of Joseph) withdraws his capital from the Pilaster bank. Making things worse is Hugh's banking expertise and undeniable potential that far eclipses Edward's limited capability. Augusta's co-conspirator is her son's best friend Micky Miranda and together they hatch devious schemes and cover-up dark secrets - the former, to increase her prosperity and gain a title and the latter to aid his criminal father in his ill-conceived war efforts in the South American city of Cordova.

Young Maisie Robinson runs away from home to escape a life of poverty. At 11, she finds herself on the streets but at 19, she finds herself married to one of the wealthiest Jewish bankers in London. Her husband Solly, heir to Greenbourne bank is upright and benevolent. Having schooled at Windfield, his circle of friends and acquaintances include the five boys (now grown men) associated with the Middleton tragedy and as an extension of this, to Maisie too. Although originally Maisie envisioned a future with Hugh, destiny intervenes and sets her on a different path.

Several people pay a heavy price in the wake of Augusta and Micky's unchecked ambition to fulfill their goals. After Joseph's passing, the Pilaster bank is looking for a senior partner and the incompetent Edward bags the role. After making a catastrophic mistake by secretly financing a controversial project at the behest of Micky, civil war breaks out in Cordova plunging the bank into an unprecedented financial crisis. Hugh has no choice but to clean up his cousin's mismanagement. Forced into bankruptcy he has to make difficult decisions to protect the bank's reputation further deepening the rift in the Pilaster family.

Meanwhile, skeletons are tumbling out of the Pliaster family closet and the final straw is when Tonio Silva is found murdered in cold blood. Scotland Yard is now on a manhunt for the killer.

Does Hugh manage to save the bank? Do Hugh and Maisie have a future together? Will Micky and Augusta end their trail of devastation?

Read the book to find out more!

My thoughts...

I liked everything about Ken Follett's propulsive thriller Eye of the Needle. Although I liked the plot, I didn't much care for the characters of his high-flying caper Night Over Water. I didn't know what to expect from this third novel but it turned out to be an absorbing read.

I love how Follett captures the reader's interest right from the first page. This novel has an unexpected and chilling opening that keeps the reader hooked. The author sets the mood for the novel and creates an atmosphere that spurs the reader's imagination. The historical setting serves as a quaint backdrop to the multi-layered plot. The pace of the novel is perfect (the time leaps help greatly) and no part of the story can be described as dull. Follett moves his characters briskly along through 26 or so eventful years. As is his signature literary style, the prose is transparent which makes for easy reading. The story is narrated from the point of view of various characters with sometimes an omniscient narrator to fill in the gaps. The shifting perspectives enhances the appeal of the narrative. Another aspect of the novel that I loved is how unpredictable it is. Just when you think the truth is going to erupt in an explosive fashion, either nothing happens or the bad guys emerge stronger than ever! As a reader, waiting for comeuppance makes you wish for instant gratification.

The book is set in the period spanning 1866 to 1892, the years of corsets, ballrooms, carriages and men's clubs. The manner in which the author has vividly described the striking contrasts between the London elite, the struggling immigrants and the ordinary working class is commendable. That generation as a whole, was more conservative compared to that of today, yet the book unabashedly explores subjects of adultery, promiscuity, perversion, homosexuality and unwed motherhood. In an era where several issues important to the current generation were not considered relevant, the story draws attention to a few such as - religious equality, women's rights and the impact of socio-economic divide. In that sense, the novel actually comes across as gutsy with a modern sensibility.

The strength of this novel lies in its characters. For me personally, unlike with his previous novel Night Over Water, this one had characters that I was invested in. The characters of Hugh, Solly, Maisie and to a lesser extent, Samuel are the ones that stand out. The main protagonist Hugh is altruistic, courageous and righteous but also flawed which makes him relatable. The same can be said for Maisie. And although Augusta shows her true colors right from the outset, she is a strong female character who leaves an imprint with her unvarnished ambition and dogged determination. I love how Follett writes such strong and memorable women characters! On more than one occasion Augusta reminded me of the scheming matriarch Victoria Grayson from ABC's television drama Revenge! The character of Edward is interesting because of how ambivalent his personality is. He doesn't endear himself to the reader but one can still muster some sympathy for his character despite his many vices. Micky, on the other hand is downright sinister. His debauchery and nefarious activities makes him the quintessential villain - the kind you would love to hate. The character development of all the main characters as the story progresses has been handled remarkably well.

Of course, there were a few aspects that as a reader, I did not find entirely convincing. Like how the ruthless Augusta doesn't go after Maisie after she becomes Mrs Greenbourne, how a considerate and emotionally-attuned Solly can be so naĂŻve and how easily the shrewd Ben Greenbourne comes around in the end. But maybe that is just me. The novel has plenty of strengths to overshadow these minor details. 

A Dangerous Fortune has a little bit of everything - tragedy, drama, love, ambition, greed, lust and crime. This period drama has a good story with memorable characters. That being said, it is not without its shortcomings but as a whole, it is engaging and entertaining. I wouldn't think twice about recommending it as a one-time read. And I'd also like to add that this book definitely has the potential to be made into an engrossing movie! 



My rating for this book is,




Cheers,
Megha

2 comments:

  1. I have COVID-19 to thank for getting me to read this book. Lots of downtime to fill. I enjoyed your review and largely agree that this is a fine work by Ken Follett, carried by its substantive characters. Thank you for this review.

    ReplyDelete

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