reviewed by Cara DiCostanzo
“Her reign is referred to as the Golden Age, but it was a flowering of culture against a backdrop of religious suppression, torture, disease, and waves of starvation.” –Matthew Varet Ashton Hall by Lauren Belfer.
This is my first novel by Lauren Belfer and she has written an exquisite book bringing multiple themes; history of the golden age of the 1500s, neurodiversity and a marriage falling apart, marrying these topics seamlessly. There is an undertone of feminism, which depicts how a woman who can become trapped in a miserable marriage when she lacks an independent means of support, but also how feminism came to be almost five centuries ago.
Hannah Larson and her son, Nicky, have gone to Cambridge, England from New York City to care for her Uncle Christopher, who is dying of cancer. Nicky, nine years old, is neurodivergent, with terrifying fits of rage which Hannah endures. Christopher rents an apartment in a large estate of enormous proportions. While Hannah is using this time to work on her abandoned dissertation, Nicky explores the closed off part of the castle with crumbling stairs and abandoned rooms. There, he finds a skeleton behind a crumbling brick wall. They believe the woman to have died in the late 1500s by the objects in her room.
Clearly, Lauren Belfer did a ton of research to write Ashton Hall. Her novel not only delves into current issues such as infidelity and autism, she also dives right into the mystery of the female skeleton and the historical context of her life. Why was the woman in a bricked up room? How did she die? The process Hannah uses to determine these answers is through library journals and accounting statements going back to the 1600s and figuring out what it was like to be a woman so many centuries ago. A powerful theme running through both time frames is the choices women have made and the options it gave them over the centuries.
The way the author has weaved several storylines together is brilliant. Often, this is done to the detriment of the reader, who tries to make everything fit together. I loved the strong female sentiment throughout the book, and while Hannah’s choices were not always easy, she persisted. Each individual in this book does not fit into stereotypical roles, and it is so enjoyable to read. I can’t wait to read more of this author!