Book review: Freckles

James Walton 10 September 2021

A dramatic turn of events might induce literary whiplash in this otherwise enjoyable novel by Cecilia Ahern

When Allegra Bird was a girl, she used to join up the freckles on her arms with a pen to create constellations. Now, in her twenties, she’s finding it much harder to make connections, either with other people or between the different parts of her life—although, in her defence, there are quite a lot of those.

Among other things, Allegra has a beloved father back in Kerry; a current job as a parking warden in Malahide, near Dublin; a part-time career as a nude life model; a former beau who’s just made her best friend pregnant; and a desperate desire to track down the mother who abandoned her at birth. 

Allegra’s quest to link up these various elements is the premise of the new novel by Cecelia Ahern: daughter of the former Irish Taoiseach Bertie and, for the past two decades, a leading figure in women’s fiction. Or, more accurately, it’s one of the premises—because, somewhat ironically in the circumstances (and a bit surprisingly for such a seasoned pro), Freckles never really succeeds in joining up all of the many things it wants to be. 

"Freckles never really succeeds in joining up all of the many things it wants to be"

There is, for example, a central love story, which takes the traditional form of a man who seemed horrible turning out to be nice. There’s also that other staple of the fiction formerly known as chick-lit: a heroine whose main flaw is that she doesn’t realise how great she is. But Ahern throws in plenty more besides—including the idea that “You are the average of the five people you spend most time with”: an idea that has Allegra learning to separate the glamorous but ultimately shallow Dublin types from the “real honest to goodness people” she eventually comes to treasure.

The novel undeniably offers plenty to enjoy. Allegra herself is highly appealing, and most of the individual scenes are funny, affecting or both. Even so, the feeling persists that too much of what the novel has bitten off remains unchewed. Some significant loose ends are left dangling—while the sudden sprint from abject misery on page 331 to the inevitable happy ending just 14 pages later may leave some readers suffering from the literary equivalent of  whiplash. 

Celia Ahern's Freckles book cover

Freckles by Cecelia Ahern (HarperCollins) is available here.

Reader’s Digest Recommended Read: Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor by Andrew Lownie

Some particularly obsessive readers of this magazine might remember that a year ago our Recommended Read was a book about Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936. Now, Andrew Lownie explains what happened next—and the results aren’t always pretty.

As the title suggests, Lownie’s main contention is that Edward’s pro-German attitudes in the 1930s weren’t simply a question of a naïve determination to avoid war. Instead, they stemmed from a mixture of personal ambition and genuine ideology (even after the war, Edward would tell dinner guests that “the Jews had Germany in their tentacles”).

In 1937, Edward and Wallis Simpson—the wife for whom he famously gave up the throne—went on a “fact-finding” tour of Germany that included tea with Hitler. As Lownie pretty conclusively demonstrates, until the summer of 1940 the Duke of Windsor (as he’d become) was—at the very least—interested in a German plan to re-install him on the British throne as part of a negotiated peace. 

Certainly, Churchill was worried enough to pack off the couple to the Bahamas, where the Duke served as governor throughout the war. After that, though, the problem remained of what an ex-king was supposed to do with his life. As the Royal Family made clear, a return to the UK wasn’t an option—any more than Wallis being allowed to bear the title of Royal Highness. 

In the event, the problem was never really solved—which is why the post-war sections of the book fascinatingly detail the Windsors’ rather melancholy drift through those parts of high society that would have them (we also get some fairly hair-raising information on their sexual habits, both intra- and extra-marital).

But here they are in 1946, moving back to the Château de la Croë, in the South of France, where they’d lived before the war—and which, incidentally, is now owned by Roman Abramovich…

"The villa had billeted Italians and German troops during the war and was in a sorry state, with curtains and oil paintings stolen, mines in the garden and rusting radar on the roof. Wallis, never happier than when making a new home, set about restoring it and their pre-war life. Within a month she had a staff of twenty-two and was entertaining furiously, helped by the fact that, as a major-general, the Duke was entitled to draw rations from the British Army depot at Marseilles. 

"The Windsors always dressed for dinner—he in dinner jacket or kilt, she in long dress and jewels, and close attention was paid to the food, flowers and guests"

Here the couple lived the life denied to them in reality; here Wallis was given the status denied to her by the Royal Family. Georges Sanègre, who worked for the Windsors for almost forty years, was taken aside when he first joined the staff by Wilmott the butler. ‘I have been instructed by the duke that all staff must bow or curtsy to the duchess and call her Your Royal Highness. You must never speak first, but wait until she has spoken to you; never turn your back to her, but take several paces backwards and then turn to leave her presence.’

The Windsors always dressed for dinner—he in dinner jacket or kilt, she in long dress and jewels, and close attention was paid to the food, flowers and guests. They brought in well-known entertainers such as Maurice Chevalier, and guests might include Noël Coward. Once when a member of staff was surprised there were only six for dinner, Wallis quickly replied, indeed, ‘but they are all kings.’ 

Without any other purpose in life, the Windsors’ purpose became to entertain and be entertained. If they could not live in a royal palace or be posted to an embassy, they would create the ambience of one themselves. Their lives would become a spectacle. One guest remembered them taking a party to a gala in Monte Carlo. ‘She had on every jewel. He wore a kilt. It was like watching a couple in pantomime—the studied gestures, the automatic smiles.’ 

‘In the evening the Windsors arrived,’ wrote Noël Coward in his diary in spring 1946. ‘The hotel got itself into a fine frizz… I gave them a delicious dinner: consommé, marrow on toast, grilled langoustine, tournedos with sauce béarnaise, and chocolate soufflé. Poor starving France. After that we went to the Casino and Wallis and I gambled until 5am. She was very gay and it was most enjoyable. The Duke sat rather dolefully at one of the smaller tables.’

‘You can’t imagine the sense of luxury at La Croë in that first summer after the war,’ says the French socialite and friend of the Windsors, the Baronne de Cabrol. ‘It was a really grand villa and to amuse us, the Duchess arranged to serve dinner in a different room each night over the ten days we stayed there.’"

Traitor King book cover

Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is available here.

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