Ann and her Mother

March 2, 2018

You know who’s really, really good? Anna Buchan. Even at her worst, which I expect is what Ann and her Mother is.

It’s a structural thing, mostly: Ann Douglas and her mother have recently moved into a new house, built to Ann’s specifications on some land left to her by an uncle. They’re a little isolated, and there’s not a lot to do, so Ann decides to write her mother’s biography. The book consists of their conversations as they unsystematically recall family history.

Their family is composed very similarly to the Setons’ (and presumably the Buchans’) with a minister father, a girl and several boys, and one much younger brother. Everyone but Ann and Mrs. Douglas is either dead or abroad. All the standard Buchan elements are here: mischievous kids, servants who are part of the family, deftly drawn friends and parishioners, interior design, boys dead in WWI. But they lose something in the distance of the double retelling. There’s stuff going on in the present that I’d like to hear about, like the Douglases settling into their new home and meeting the neighbors, and how they spend their days when they’re not talking after dinner. But we see very little of that. It feels like an epistolary novel masquerading as something else.

But I don’t want to complain, because it’s still good, even if it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I got caught off-guard by how attached I got to the Douglases, even secondhand. And the relationship between Ann and her mother is great. Buchan does a good job of balancing their comfort and discomfort with each other. They obviously couldn’t do without each other, but equally neither is really the companion the other would have chosen. And devoting pretty much the whole book to their relationship allows Buchan to get a lot of nuance in. Still, I wanted more. But you know what really helps, if you finish this book and want more? Reading/rereading The Setons, which  I wasn’t crazy about the first time round, but climbed way up my Buchan rankings when I revisited it.


  1. Hello Melody and thank you for this review. I saw this title, and wondered, but not enough to read it yet. It definitely helps having your review so I know what to expect (and what I really want is many more of Penny Plain). Thank you again, I really like reading your reviews!

    • You’re welcome! I think if you’re looking for something more like Penny Plain, you might want to check out The House that is Our Own. It’s not really similar in plot to Penny Plain, but I think it might be the most similar in feel that I’ve read so far.

  2. YES! I would kind of love it if there were a novel before this one, a novel after this one, and a few novels in “the past” about the most interesting bits of this one. But none of those other books exist, sigh. It’s a masterpiece of setting and characterization, not strong on plot, but I would have been happy to have it be, say, three (or maybe more?) times as long if it were all still as good, which feels plausible. I guess, I would have been happy for this to be a more or less unending serial of sorts, although it does start and end less abruptly than that might imply. But it’s definitely a meandery book rather than a climax-driven, conventionally-structured book.

    But basically, I would really like it if there were more of her books in general.

    Also yes to The Setons being a good chaser (also of unusual structure, but kind of amazing).

    • To be fair, I don’t think anyone is going to Anna Buchan for plot. Which is fine, and I’ve mostly talked myself around to really liking Ann and her Mother. But my favorite Anna Buchan thing is probably watching people get acquainted, and I missed that. But yes to all of the additional novels-worth of the Douglas family.

      • Yes – if one goes to Anna Buchan for riveting plot, something about one’s book selection process has gone fairly wrong. (gotta visit her brother for the plot-centric eventful whirlwinds)

        I loved the reminiscing in this one – it beautifully depicted that blend of pain and enjoyment and meandering, and feelings about things being frankly mixed but simultaneous, that you often don’t get at the time things are happening (when you’re more likely to be feeling different things sequentially? not sure.). A lot of it felt very *true* – her mother both recounting events, and her feelings at the time, but also wishing she’d responded differently in various ways. It was a lot more emotionally (and truthfully) complex than books are often allowed to be, simply because of the way it had room for the various layers of self-commentary, and I really enjoyed that.

        I feel like In This House of Brede accomplishes something similar by having many different characters respond to the same things – so many different layered perspectives, generally not simply “correct” or “incorrect” or whatever – but having the varying perspectives coming from the same person at different times in her life has additional power, both in giving the snapshots and also in reflecting on age/growth/changes.

        Anyway. I wish Anna Buchan had written more, but alas.

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