In the first book of this trilogy set in the 1910s we’re introduced to the two Buxton sisters, Rowena and Victoria, as well as their childhood friend Prudence. Pru was the daughter of their housekeeper, but Mr. Buxton was very progressive and raised the three girls to be modern and independent. When the book starts, Mr. Buxton has just died, and their uncle insists that Rowena and Victoria come live with his family at Summerset Abbey. There, Prudence is relegated below stairs and treated like a maid, and Rowena and Victoria struggle with their overbearing aunt and a dark family secret.
In the second book, which picks up after the ~dramatic~ conclusion of the first one, nothing happens for a couple hundred pages. No, really. The relationships between the three girls and their love interests develops a little, people travel from London to the country and vice versa, and there’s a lot of useless talking, but the status quo practically doesn’t change between the end of the first book and the beginning of the third.
While Rowena, Victoria and Prudence are trying to untangle their rather complicated love lives, WWI starts and throws everything into disarray.
I’ve just finished reading the last book, but it occurred to me that it makes little sense to review it separately from the others since the three books are like three parts of the same story. First off, you might have noticed the strange ratings: this is a good series overall, but the second book is a snoozefest. It felt as if the author had enough material for two books only, but for some reason she decided to write a trilogy anyway. The only plot where anything happens in the second book is Victoria’s, and Victoria becomes insufferable in it. Because of that I considered not reading the third book at all. I’m glad I changed my mind, because the third book is good and a satisfying conclusion to the series, but my enjoyment was definitely marred by that lump of dumb in the middle of an otherwise good series.
The story is told in alternating POVs from the three girls, and I liked all three of them. Rowena was my favourite: I liked how she slowly gained the confidence to stand up to her uncle and pursue her dreams, and I loved it even more that one of her dreams was flying a plane as one of the first women pilots. She looked the most prim and proper of the three sisters in the first book, so it was interesting to see how her character developed. Victoria was sometimes grating and Prudence was by far the most bland, but they both had a lot deal of character development, so that was good. I won’t talk about their love interests in detail because it’s fairly spoilerific, I’ll just say that I’m happy with who they ended up with in the end. I raged a little on Goodreads and Twitter because there’s a bit in the third book in which everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person and I was afraid the author was going to throw together two people that I thought would never work out. Happily that didn’t happen. Even better, a couple of characters who had said some questionable things ended up pulling their head out of their butts and apologized for it. The ending was emotional and very satisfying.
Now, obviously, I read this series because of the similarity to Downton Abbey. I was a huge fan of the show, back before the fourth season screwed up most of the characters, and I’m still a fan of anything set in the same period. The Summerset Abbey series reads like a watered-down, cheaper version of Downton — the show has a huge cast, but the books revolve around the three protagonists and a handful of other secondary characters. This makes for a tighter story, since there’s fewer subplots to follow, but I actually prefer having a larger cast and sometimes I wondered what the other people at Summerset were up to. Also, the focus of the story was definitely on the “upstairs” aristocratic people; Prudence was lower class, but aside from her brief stint in the first book she was never in the servants’ quarters at all. Again, I think it’s a pity because one of Downton’s great points is how it shows the upper classes and the servants side by side, and what they thought of each other. Is the book capitalizing on the success of Downton Abbey? I think so, the similarities are several, from the title to the three sisters. Is it just a ripoff? No, it’s not, it follows its own story and the characters are developed in different directions.
If you can get past the dreary second book, Summerset Abbey is an enjoyable trilogy, especially if you’re suffering from Downton withdrawal.