In this enthralling and atmospheric tale of murder, revenge and redemption, a young American struggles to make sense of a world he does not understand, where the price of acceptance may be murder.
John Vanbrugh is an outsider in the England of 1905: A determined but unsuccessful American architect, he has moved to London to make a new life for himself and his wife, Margaret. When he receives an unexpected summons to meet the dazzling Duchess of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace, he is skeptical.
The young duchess, Vanbrugh comes to understand, has her reasons. Like him, she is American-born: Consuelo Vanderbilt, one of the richest debutantes in America. Seemingly on impulse, the duchess hires Vanbrugh to renovate her rooms at Blenheim - a plum job Vanbrugh accepts. He and his wife join the weekend party at Blenheim, a group that includes the foul-tempered duke; his young cousin Winston Churchill; the society painter John Singer Sargent; the duchess' mother and American suffragette Mrs. O.H.P.Belmont; Gladys Deacon, an American friend of the duchess'; and the enigmatic Catholic Monsignor Vay de Vaya.
Almost as soon as he begins work at Blenheim, Vanbrugh uncovers a series of unsettling letters that hint at a long-concealed deceit. As he tries to grasp the meaning of this discovery, a sketchbook owned by Sargent is stolen and a young housemaid is found in the courtyard, strangled. It is then that Vanbrugh realizes he is caught in a maze of duplicity and manipulation with no way out. Struggling to uncover the treachery he sees around him, Vanbrugh is forced to re-evaluate everything he thought about Blenheim, himself, even the very nature of truth.
Part mystery, part gothic morality tale, A Weekend at Blenheim is a compelling, mesmerizing, deeply satisfying novel.
Despite its glorious setting (Blenheim, the ancestral seat of the Duke of Marlborough, in 1905) and elegant cast (Charles Spencer-Churchill and his duchess, Consuelo Churchill, n e Vanderbilt; the duke's cousin, Winston Churchill; the painter John Singer Sargent), this period piece lacks refinement. Hired to redo the duchess's living quarters in the palace, John Vanbrugh, a young American architect, uncovers a cryptic message whose meaning and potential import careen the narrative into a vast set of intrigues the murder of a young maidservant, a missing sketchbook of compromising nudes, multiple affairs of the heart, even the legitimacy of the dukedom itself. Though generally suspenseful and entertaining, the book feels over-engineered, with its byzantine plot and often forced or contrived logic. Moreover, the droll, witty tone is at odds with the seriousness of the action as well as with the decadence of the duke and duchess and their hangers-on. The intelligent, prudish Vanbrugh is disgusted by the lifestyles of the rich and famous he encounters at Blenheim, but he comes across as more of a prig than a moralist. More than a few readers may find it in dubious taste that Morrissey ascribes some monstrous behavior to the duke and duchess, who were after all real people. Without a truly sympathetic character to engage the reader, the story, like the palace itself, comes off as unpleasant and unappealing.