Book Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
In an alternate future as envisioned in the 1930s, Flora Poste loses both her parents and finds herself living on 100 pounds a year. In lieu of getting a job and an apartment in London as suggested by her friend Mrs. Smiling, she decides to live with relatives in order to tidy things up about them. She decides upon her farming cousins the Starkadders who are all under the whims of Great Aunt Ada Doom who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was a child. Flora may have bit off more than she can chew between crazy Aunt Judith, cousin Seth who has more sultry appeal than he can handle, cousin Elfine who flits about the fields and writes poetry, hell-fire preaching Uncle Amos, and sundry other cousins, not to mention the sad bull in the barn.
Between the general more British style of writing and the accents of some of the relatives, it took me a bit to get into this book. Once I did though, I found myself lost in the delightful world Gibbons created and wishing the etiquette books Flora religiously uses as her references for life actually existed.
Reading of what was a near future for Gibbons, but actually an alternate past sometime in the 1940s or 1950s for modern readers gave the book a deliciously steampunk quality. People talk on videophones but they still must run to town to use a pay phone. Almost everyone seems to have their own airplane that are used for jaunts to London and Paris. On the other hand, the clothes and hairstyle call to mind the roaring 20s as do the social mores. This is an alternate history that saw no conservative backlash and yet one that also maintained marriage, beautiful clothing, and fancy parties as the norm. How could you not want to visit this world?
Each character is well-drawn and easily decipherable from each other, which is a significant achievement given the relatively short length of the book. Pretty much every character has some flaw, but they aren’t demonized for it. They simply learn to deal with their shortcomings either by embracing them and making them work for them or re-routing their energies into more worthwhile pursuits. I can’t recall the last time I saw a bunch of characters with so many short-comings and yet portrayed in such a sympathetic light.
What made me love the book the most though, I must admit, was the main character of Flora Poste. For the first time I loved a main character who is pretty much the exact opposite of my own personality. She is calm, even-minded, focused, and gentle, whereas I, I must admit, am much more like one of the Starkadders who she seeks to help. The Starkadders are the dramatic, emotional type, and Flora, while sympathetic to actual underlying issues, won’t put up with any overdramatizing. She doesn’t expect them to change the essence of who they are; she just expects them to tidy up a bit and be a bit more reasonable about everything. The whole concept of being reasonable about things is such a new idea to the Starkadders that it leads to some truly hilarious scenes.
Of course Flora is not without her own faults, which is good. Otherwise, the book would read as quite judgmental on the poetic types. Flora can be too quick to get herself in over her head and she can be a bit quick to judge people she’s just met, but these are just her own flaws and she does her best and really that’s all any person can ever really do.
Overall, I absolutely loved this book. It’s a world that is a pure delight to get lost in, and I foresee myself returning to it again and again as a comfort read. I highly recommend it to everyone. Between the character building, the steampunky feel, and the humorous slapstick scenes, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
5 out of 5 stars