Book Discussion: Golden Hill by Frances Spufford

Golden HIll is an interesting niche novel, for those who enjoy older forms of writing, including a self-conscious, slightly intrusive narrator.  While I enjoyed the writing immensely, I will have to confess that I found the plot a little lacking. The book is set in 1746 New York. Richard Smith arrives from London mysteriously bearing a bill of exchange for an immense amount of money by New York standards, which he promptly presents to a local merchant.  Speculation about Smith’s purpose in New York runs rampant from the beginning, and where Spufford excels is the finely drawn characters and the web of connections between them, of which Smith is at first ignorant, but comes to know all too well by the time he leaves New York.

Perhaps this is why I was ultimately disappointed.  The writing is wonderful, the pace a little slow, but enjoyable, and the characters are all interesting, with backstories eked out gradually by Spufford for the most part.  However, when Smith’s errand is ultimately revealed, it seems to be a little anticlimactic–the clues to his true identity are still somewhat murky. One can’t help feeling let down, having read the whole book, that the end is not really an ending.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave one wishing for a sequel, although that could be its purpose. It feels more like Spufford ran out of steam and decided to just write the ending already. This reader wanted to know more about Smith, and why Tabitha has the reaction she does to him at the close of the novel. 

I am fully aware that this may have been a conscious decision by the author, but to this reader, too much was left unexplained at the end, and there was a hint of deus ex machina, again perhaps intentional.  Motives were not fully revealed, and actions that didn’t make sense occurred with too much frequency toward the end of the story, and many, many loose ends were left dangling.

If you choose to read this book anyway, and I probably would, because the positive aspects outweigh the negative–the clever asides and author to reader jokes alone are worth it–do so in the full knowledge that you may be left with a vaguely unsettled feeling at the end and not a full understanding of what just happened, which may in fact have been the author’s intent all along.

Here are some discussion questions for your book group:

  1. What historical aspects of the story did you find the most interesting? What were you unaware of, historically speaking, before reading this novel?
  2. Did you find Richard Smith a likeable character?  Do you think he was meant to be the hero of the story, or was someone else?  Explain.
  3. There was a lot of political maneuvering and spying in the novel. How do you think this works in the narrative? Does it reveal or obscure? Does it propel the main plot, or is it a subplot? Explain.
  4. Why do you think the author chose to reveal so little of Richard’s backstory?  What do we know versus what do we guess to be true about him?
  5. Which characters would you like to know more about?  Are there other characters whose stories you would like to see in a follow up novel? Which ones and why?
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