My thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Nina de Gramont weaves a rather interesting and very readable tale in The Christie Affair but while I enjoyed reading it a lot, I had some reservations which have prevented me from rating it as high as I might have otherwise.
The Christie Affair is centred around the period that Agatha Christie went missing for 11 days. This was in 1926, when not long after her mother’s death, something that devastated her, her husband Archie Christie left her for another woman, Nancy (Neale) with whom he had been having an affair. In this version, we have a fictionalised version of Nancy, Nan O’Dea, with a very different back story than her real-life counterpart, and it is Nan who is our narrator. We follow two parallel stories, one the narrative of Christie’s disappearance as Nan recounts events as they unfolded day by day, and the second from Nan’s past in England and Ireland which left her lost and bitter. In the present, we see the events that preceded Agatha’s disappearance, and the efforts that were made to search for her by the police who organized a manhunt on an unprecedented scale as well as others like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers who relied on their interest in the occult to find clues. (I knew about Conan Doyle’s interest in the supernatural but not that Sayers was into it as well). Among the searchers is fictional Inspector Chilton who also stumbles upon a murder mystery in the process. Meanwhile we learn of Nan’s childhood in England and the time she spent in Ireland (her father was Irish) with relatives and also of the boy she met and fell in love with there.
This was as I wrote a very readable book, and I enjoyed the writing and the pacing. The author I think was very imaginative in the story she has created around a subject that still remains somewhat of a mystery—where Christie disappeared to for those 11 days.
The murder mystery element of the plot was something I hadn’t expected when going into the story but it turned out very interesting, especially since I didn’t really see the solution coming at all. Nor indeed did I guess how the two threads of the story, in fact more than two, would connect up. Here again the book took me by surprise and things began to make a lot more sense and fell into place rather well. I also liked that Nan is not portrayed as the typical home wrecker or ‘villainess’. In fact, the reader is able to sympathise with her almost all through.
But the qualities of the book notwithstanding, I did have a few reservations, perhaps related to each other. The first was regarding the fact and fiction blend in the book. I mean I know a lot of historical fiction weaves together real and fictional elements (events and people) but here I wasn’t sure what to make of the aspects the author chose to keep (like the homes where Archie met Nan) and those she fictionalised (like Nan’s background and even personality; her feelings vis-a-vis Archie which make sense in the story but would not apply to the real-life Nancy).
The other part was Nan’s story. This brings up a scenario and an issue that has been dealt with in another recent much-praised novel (I don’t want to talk about it too much as it would be a spoiler). While this is something that needs to be talked of and I think the author told the story very well evoking all the anger and sympathy it calls for, the Agatha Christie story didn’t feel to me the right ‘vehicle’ to tack this onto. It didn’t seem to me plausible here (particularly the liberties it took with elements of the real-life track).
So this turned out a book that I enjoyed reading (the story is really good and I appreciated all the surprise elements) but I think if the author had fictionalised the entire thing, even the Christie story, may be created fictional counterparts for them too, it would have worked a lot better for me.