Review: The Passing Bells

I received this book for free from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The Passing BellsThe Passing Bells by Phillip Rock
Series: Passing Bells #1
Published by William Morrow on December 4, 2012
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 516
Format: Paperback
Source: TLC Book Tours

Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Abingdon Pryory...

The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir.

But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll—shattering the household's tranquillity, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home.

First Sentence: “The dawn came early, tinting a cloudless sky the palest shade of green.”

First published in 1978, The Passing Bells has gotten a new lease on life, thanks to the popularity of the BBC show Downton Abbey. As you can see from the description, this book is being marketed as similar to Downton, and, thankfully, there is some truth in that. However, the focus in The Passing Bells is much more on history than on romantic drama. The Passing Bells reads more like Herman Wouk’s Winds of War in a Downton-like setting.

The Passing Bells gets off to a rather slow start, introducing the myriad characters, but not delving too deeply to any one of them. This portion before the war is most reminiscent of Downton Abbey, but was also my least favorite part, because it lacked drama to pull me in and I did not yet know the characters well enough to be more than mildly interested in them. Given the 500+ pages in the book, I feared I might regret my decision to be on the tour for all three novels in this series, but, thankfully, the novel picked up for me about 150 pages in.

In Downton Abbey, WWI happens largely off-screen, and it’s over quite quickly. The show races through history, but Rock lingers. He does not gloss over the war or keep the perspective more on the romances. He also shows off more of the dark side of war, which may have been his goal in composing the series. Rock highlights this time period as the turning point in England from the time of the landed estates to a more modern sensibility.

The Passing Bells encompasses the whole of WWII, with an emphasis on the first couple years of the conflict. The characters in The Passing Bells have roles in the war that range from soldier to nurse to doctor to journalist to living a slightly reduced life back in England. There’s a great scope of British experiences during the war, all done very well. If you love historical fiction about World War I, The Passing Bells is a must read.

Rock develops a good cast of characters, some of whom are even reminiscent of characters in Downton Abbey, like Lydia who reminds me a lot of Lady Mary at her most scheming. I do wish there were more of an even focus on the female characters. The men receive a lot more attention than the women, who mostly appear only in relation to the male characters. The book does pass the Bechdel test, but only just barely.

Rock’s The Passing Bells is a family drama of large scope that poses serious questions about the nature of modern warfare. History fans will not want to miss this. I am looking forward to reading the next installment of the trilogy quite soon.

Favorite Quote:

“‘Ever first novelist feels that the story of his life and his family is a world-shaking event that simply screams for print. I went through that stage myself, Martin. I was twelve at the time, and I suddenly noticed something that perhaps you have noted yourself—that I simply do not look at all like my father. Well, I began to ponder on that and reached the febrile conclusion that I was the result of a liaison between my mother and the King of Spain. Then, filled with plans for an epic saga of my first twelve years on earth, about the little English Jew who was in reality a bastard claimant to a Catholic throne, I went browsing in the attic and found a trunk. In that trunk were tintypes of my father and his long-dead sister, Rose. I was exactly like her, a carbon copy of the poor departed dear.'”

11 responses to “Review: The Passing Bells”

  1. I really like this cover! I would totally pick this up at the store and then put it back down when I realized it was historical. For some reason we just don’t get a long, but I have to say that your reviews for quite a few historical novels make me want to give the genre another try. This one sounds really good. I haven’t watched Downton Abbey but everyone seems to love it quite a bit. I like that this one doesn’t skip past the war and delves into it a bit more because it has people who are directly involved in various ways.

    • Christina says:

      Ha, I love this cover too! Her dress is so pretty! 🙂

      Gah! I would love if you discovered an affection for historical fiction. You should try Out of the Easy, because it really feels pretty contemporary and I think you’re enjoy the action and characters. Who knows, though?

  2. Audra says:

    Great review — I think you nailed it in terms of what it is and isn’t, and conveyed the feeling. I’m finishing it up today and kind of overwhelmed at the thought of writing my review! BUT I am keen for the next two books (where ever they may be!).

    • Christina says:

      My goodness, yes! I am not sure where the series is going to go? To their kids? Pick up where it left off? Most of the people are married off, so I feel like they’ll need some new characters. Martin’s back in the US; the daughter’s in Canada…

      This review was easy to write, but I feel like I should have more to say, but the only option would have been to delve deeper into the individual characters which might have done the plot a disservice.

  3. Kat Balcombe says:

    YAY historical fiction. And WWI historical fiction at that – WWII is much more common, so WWI still has that air of the mysterious. I’ve never seen Downton Abbey because I’d probably get lost in watching it for hours on end. I’m definitely going to try and track this down. I’m intrigued that it goes into the darker side of the war.

    Thanks for bringing this one to my attention 😀

    • Christina says:

      I thought of you when I was writing the review, because I think it will be right up your Aussie alley! Oh man, you should see Downton. You should. It is worth the lost hours.

  4. I’ve only recently started watching Downtown Abbey, but I love it and it sounds like this book emulates some of the greatness of that show and adds some of its own. (A little sad that the female characters don’t get that much attention, because it doesn’t seem that way in Downtown, but I really do like that quote.)

    • Christina says:

      Well, it doesn’t EMULATE the show because it came 35 years before, but I get what you mean. Unfortunately, the male author from the 70s focuses more on the men. This should perhaps not be surprising, but still makes me pout, because this could have been even better.

  5. I have a love/hate relationship with historical fiction, so I’m ashamed to say this, but…I like it when there’s more soapy romance in them. (!! I admitted it !!) I’m afraid you lost me at WINDS OF WAR, hah. But it’s awesome that this turned out to be such a good read for you.

    I like Downton Abbey quite a bit myself, too. 🙂

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    • Christina says:

      Oooh, I love soapy romance too, so do not worry about judgment from this quarter. Did you read Gilt by Katherine Longshore? That book has so much scandal AND accurate history. <3

      If Winds of War didn’t work for you, this might not be ideal for you.

  6. heathertlc says:

    I love a book with a sweeping scope, provided that the author can pull it all together … sounds like Rock did just that!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

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