“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” (1984) Book Review

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“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” (1984) Book Review

Several years ago, I once posted a list of my top ten favorite historical fiction novels of all time. Susan Howatch’s 1984 novel,“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” made the list. In fact, I would go as far to say that it would have also made the list of my top favorite novels . . . period. I love it that much. 

Back in the 1970s, Howatch wrote several family sagas in which the main characters were based upon members from a certain group from Britain’s Royal Family known as House of Plantagenet, which ruled the country between 1154 and 1485. The characters from 1971’s “PENMARRIC” were based upon the Plantagenet line that began with King Henry II and ended withKing John. 1974’s “CASHELMARA” featured characters based the line that began with Edward I and ended with his grandson,Edward III“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” also featured a character based upon Edward III, but he turned out to be a supporting one. The novel’s main characters were based on his children, two of his grandsons and a great-grandson, starting withEdward, the Black Prince and ending with Henry V“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” followed the fortunes of the Godwins, an Anglo-Welsh upper-class family that lived on an estate called Oxmoon, located near Gower in South Wales. The novel is divided into six major chapters, narrated by the following:

*Robert Godwin – oldest son in the family and a successful barrister who becomes a Member of Parliament
*Ginevra “Ginette” Godwin – Robert’s wife, distant cousin and childhood obsession, who was previously married to an Irishman named Conor Kinsella
*John Godwin – third son in the family and a diplomat with the Foreign Office
*Christopher “Kester” Godwin – Robert and Ginerva’s second son, who becomes master of Oxmoon upon his grandfather’s death
*Henry “Harry” Godwin – John’s oldest living son and Kester’s rival
*Henry “Hal” Godwin – Harry’s oldest son and a musician

“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” spanned at least fifty to sixty years – from 1913 to the late 1960s or early 1970s, covering at least four generations and two world wars. Although the novel is told from the point of view of six major characters, it also featured other never-to-be-forgotten characters from the Godwin family. The ones that really come to mind are Robert and John’s complicated parents – the emotionally unstable Bobby and his very disciplined wife Margaret; Declan Kinsella, Ginette’s oldest son from her first marriage; Bronwen Morgan, John’s mistress and third wife; Robert and John’s youngest brother, the somewhat coarse and unimaginative Thomas Godwin; and Harry’s first wife, the sexy and not-so-bright Belinda “Bella” Stourham Godwin, who becomes obsessed with conceiving a girl after an aborted teenage pregnancy.

What I found amazing about “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” is that it more or less continued the de Salis family saga from“CASHELMARA”, but with different characters. A family scandal involving Bobby’s mother and a sheep farmer named Owen Bryn-Davies ends up having a major impact upon the Godwin family. Both Bobby and Margaret spend most of their married lives trying to overcome the past with an ideal family life, living up to the twin creeds – “doing the done thing” and “drawing the line”. Unfortunately, Bobby’s ability to project an ideal image also leads him to become an emotional time bomb, with a penchant for womanizing. This penchant also leads to another family scandal – one that not only has an impact on Robert and Ginette’s relationship, but also on the question of Oxmoon’s true master, which culminates into an ugly rivalry between cousins Kester and Harry.

It is a skill to Ms. Howatch’s talents that I found the novel’s first two chapters fascinating. She did an excellent job in creating the novel’s setting and characters, and delving into the fascinating, yet problematic marriage between Robert and Ginette. But the chapters featuring John, Kester and Harry’s narrations prove to be the novel’s highlights. Howatch allows the readers to see how Bobby and Margaret’s efforts to maintain an ideal family fractured John’s personality – almost transforming him into some kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde. The ironic thing is that his “Hyde” persona proved to be a lot more beneficial for him. But John’s fractured personality, along with his twisted efforts to live up to his parents’ (actually, I should say his mother’s) creeds of “doing the done thing” and “drawing the line” seemed to have a negative impact on both his son Harry and nephew Kester.

The last chapter, which featured Hal’s narration, proved to be less fascinating than the previous chapters. This particular chapter featured a murder mystery within the family and Hal’s efforts to revive the family fortunes. Mind you, this story line did not strike me as compelling as the previous chapters, but I had no problems with it. But I did have a problem with two aspects of the novel. One, Howatch had an annoying habit of labeling certain characters via their nationalities. Celtics – especially the Welsh and the Irish – seemed to be described as emotional or almost fey. And the English are described as emotionally stunted, yet rational and clear-minded. I found this penchant rather infantile for a first-rate novelist like Howatch. Nor did I care for some the dialogue she had created for Bronwen. It almost seemed as if Howatch tried to transform John’s Welsh mistress (later third wife) into some kind of Celtic mystic. And I really found it annoying. It is a miracle that Bronwen managed to remain one of my favorite characters.

Although I can honestly say that “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” is not perfect, I can also state that it is also one of my favorite novels of all time. In fact, I became so fascinated with it after my last reading that I found myself re-reading some of of the passages over and over again, until I realized that I need to put it down. It really is one of the best family sagas I have ever read . . . period. And I am amazed that there has been no television adaptation of this novel. A movie adaptation would be out of the question. The time constraints on the latter would make an adaptation out of the question. But as a television adaptation . . . “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” could prove to be as exceptional as the novel itself.

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