Susan Bowden’s Homecoming is a contemporary tale of Tessa Hargrave’s coming home to the English countryside after spending her adult life estranged from her family. She’s nearly forty and her beloved Uncle Stephen is dying and wants to see her again. Though it will mean facing her aunt and cousin twenty years after they made her life a living hell, she is willing to accede to his wishes.
Tessa lives in Canada with her nineteen-year-old son Jason, and has been temporarily laid off her job with the airline. Using the money Stephen sent her, and some of her airline passes, she can visit Stephen and Jason can take a high school trip to France before they both fly back to Canada and Jason begins college.
We all know what they say about the best-laid plans, and Tessa’s plans do indeed go awry once she reaches her family’s estate. Her aunt Sybil and cousin Camilla are as unpleasant as she’d remembered, and Camilla’s husband Derek stirs up memories best left forgotten. But when Jason arrives to surprise her, everything hits the fan. Because, you see, Tessa left England after Derek broke his engagement with her to marry Camilla. And because, you see, Jason looks exactly as Derek had looked at nineteen.
Added to this volatile mixture is Vicky, daughter of Derek and Camilla, who is engaged to marry Jeremy, a titled young man. Unfortunately, perhaps the best that can be said of him is that he’s good in bed, which Stephen doesn’t feel is enough of a reason for his granddaughter to marry. Tessa doesn’t much like Jeremy either, but can she convince Vicky not to make the mistake of her life?
Then there is Phillip, Derek’s older brother, whom Tessa has always secretly adored, and who has always secretly adored Tessa. This gentle, intelligent, old-fashioned gentleman had a disastrous first marriage, but has always been there for Stephen, and will be there for Tessa, if she’ll let him. He’s got problems of his own – how to pay an enormous inheritance tax without losing his family’s estate?
Where an author with a lesser talent might have turned all these conflicts into melodrama, Bowden does not; Homecoming is a quiet sort of read. With the exception of Sybil, who really is as awful as she seems, the remaining cast of characters is neither all good nor all bad. They have all suffered in their lives, and some wear their scars more honorably than others.
Tessa is a rather brittle woman, but what she has survived explains that. Though she is not necessarily likable for much of the book, she is admirable. She becomes more likable only as she asserts herself rather than running away; for in doing so she doffs the mask she wears as protection against those who would hurt her. By the end of the book she is transformed. By standing up for herself and her son and against those who would do her harm, she earns a second chance at happiness.
While rather slow at the start, the narrative in Homecoming becomes more and more compelling as more intricacies are revealed. My enthusiasm in recommending this book is dampened only by the character of Sybil, whose cruel handiwork seems somewhat overdone. On the one hand, her orchestration of nefarious events is what spurs Tessa into confronting the past and taking charge of her future. On the other, I had a hard time reconciling how Stephen could have put up with such unrelenting viciousness for all those years. And, Sybil’s manipulation of all the characters like she was some sort of malicious chess master seemed rather unrealistic.
Though there is a strong romantic component in Homecoming, it is not a romance. It is mostly Tessa’s story, but it is also Jason’s story, Phillip’s story, and finally, Tessa and Phillip’s story. If you are looking for a quiet sort of read involving shading and nuance, you ought to give this one a try.