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The Servants' Quarters

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The Servants’ Quarters, a complex and sophisticated love story, evokes a vanishing world of privilege with a Pygmalion twist.

Haunted by phantoms of the Second World War and the Holocaust, young Cressida lives in terror of George Harding, who, severely disfigured, has returned from the front to recover in his family’s stately African home. When he plucks young Cressida’s beautiful mother and her family from financial ruin, establishing them in the old servants’ quarters of his estate, Cressida is swept into a future inexorably bound to his.

In the new setting, she finds that she is, after all, indentured. She is conscripted to enliven George Harding’s nephew, the hopelessly timid Edgar, to make him "wild and daring." And she takes on this task with resentful fury, leading the boy astray and, in the process, learning to manipulate differences in power, class, background, and ambition.

Only slowly does she come to understand that George Harding himself is watching her. And waiting.

216 pages, Hardcover

First published April 27, 2009

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About the author

Lynn Freed

17 books47 followers
Lynn Freed is a South African novelist and academic.

She came to the U.S. first as a foreign exchange student, and then went on to receive an M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from Columbia University. She taught at Bennington College, Saint Mary's College of California, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Oregon, the University of Montana, and the University of Texas in Austin.
Ms Freed's short fiction, memoirs and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's,[1] The Atlantic Monthly, Southwest Review, The Georgia Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, Tin House, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Mirabella, House Beautiful, House & Garden, and Vogue Magazine.
Her work is widely translated and anthologized, and has been listed in Best American Short Stories and in The O. Henry Award Prize Stories.
Ms. Freed is Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Northern California.[2]

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5 stars
31 (6%)
4 stars
127 (28%)
3 stars
168 (37%)
2 stars
88 (19%)
1 star
30 (6%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 88 reviews
Profile Image for Reema.
62 reviews
January 20, 2011
here we go . . . at first, it read like an upscale version of a harlequin romance. child bride/rich patron-lover? check. haunted past and haunted house? check. sexy scenes and class conflict, sometimes with their limbs entangled? double check. i have to admit, while i am still an admirer/alum of lynn freed's style, i felt she was rehashing her stock characters here and replaying her infuriatingly limited interest with one character, usually young, female, and angry. (don't get me wrong--i *root* for girls like that!) but there were several moments when i wished the reader could have gotten a better sense of some of the other potentially rich characters . . . such as the "good" sister and Mr. Harding's selfless lover and South African Phineas. Then the story might have taken on a richer, broader dimension through its less-backgrounded characters. However, the novel frustratingly stayed within the stubbornly selfish (if admirably so) confines of Cressida's mind and, through her, Mr. Harding's similar (if more educated) mind.

However. I acknowledge also that these are to some extent stylistic quibbles, and that there are persuasive feminist and aesthetic arguments for Freed's authorial choices. There aren't many novels with such openly defiant, sexual, and harshly observant female narrators; and perhaps the novel would be unruly, much less structurally sound if it hadn't focused largely on Cressida as a character. Freed's writing too, regardless of its content, is still spare, bold, and uncannily insightful about class relations, desire, and self-discovery/destiny. I found myself admiring the economy of what she calls "brushstrokes," by which she conveys entire relationships, racial dynamics, and psychologies. I also loved how unsparingly complex her mother-daughter relationship was, in yet another novel of hers, and how eerily wise she continues to be about the nature and course of sex and love. in these regards, freed continues to be, to my knowledge, one of fiercest writers out there in terms of the writerly guts and integrity it takes to depict the thing that no one else will name (or touch).
Profile Image for Carolyn.
137 reviews1 follower
July 14, 2009
"If every family chooses someone to punish, I was the one chosen by mine. Mr. Harding, for instance. When he came to lunch, Ma always put him next to me. Why me? I wanted to know. Why not Miranda, she's a freak herself? Every night Miranda woke up screaming that the Germans were coming for her over a wall."

And there you have all the important storylines of The Servants' Quarters introduced in the first sentence. Ten-year-old Cressida lives in South Africa post WWII, although the war could hardly be closer to someone not even born before it ended. Most of the adult men in the novel have been affected by it to some degree, none more than Mr. Harding, who sustained horrible facial burns when his plane was shot down. Cressida's father, although virtually a vegetable (tangentially connected to the war), has infused his girls, Cressida and Miranda, with a palpable fear of what could happen to them, just by virtue of him, and therefore them, being Jewish. Muriel, Cressida's mother, is the town floozy and yet maintains an air of delusional class superiority over the rest of the town and over Cressida as well, whom she obviously enjoys bullying.

When Cressida's parents lose their house and accept Mr. Harding's invitation to live at his estate, albeit in the servants' quarters, she is "hired" by Mr. Harding to infuse his nephew, Edgar, with the same sort of high spiritedness that she has. More easily said than done. If that sounds just a tad familiar -- young person from wrong side of tracks hired by freaky recluse to entertain distant relative -- Freed has Mr. Harding hand Cressida a copy of Great Expectations, just to make sure you didn't miss the reference. Other obvious cultural touchstones Freed includes are Jane Eyre and Lolita, while Cressida reminded me a great deal of Briony from Atonement.

Three-quarters of the way through the book, I thought, What a great summer read. Freed's writing is fluid and her storytelling makes one keep turning the pages. (I read it in about two days.) But the last section lost me. I just couldn't get on board with the pivotal romantic relationship in the story. And then Freed's wonderful writing came to a screeching halt with this exchange:

"You never asked me to come to your room in the first place!"
"I'd been asking you for years, you little fool, if only you'd been able to see it."

Did Freed take the day off and let someone else write this scene? I don't know, but I'm happy to say there isn't any other portion of the book that is this painful to read.

Also disappointing was that although the novel is set in South Africa, one learns very little about the country and the people, as virtually all the action takes place on the Harding estate.
Profile Image for Kat.
1,067 reviews8 followers
December 30, 2009
This is really a quite well written book and an interesting setting. As the backcover suggests it is a Beauty and the Beast type of story, and would be much more compelling were it not for the somewhat creepy pedophile subtext and the sheer cookiness of almost all the characters. With very few exceptions (Phineas and Elspeth) noone in this book is a grown-up or acts like one. The heroine is a teenager so we can expect the angst and the tearful outbursts from her, but pretty much everyone has them and noone has any self-control. Was this a criticism of the colonizers? I really liked the subplot of the war's consequences and what it meant to be Jewish in post-war South Africa, but it got dropped once the melodrama got really going. I liked the class confusion (what it means to be "common") and the displacement the heroine feels, but I cannot help feeling that the choices she made were ultimately self-serving. Perhaps all of our choices are, but despite liking Cressida v. much I have a lingering suspicion that she was a gold-digger after all.
Profile Image for Susann.
716 reviews41 followers
June 20, 2009
When it comes to NPR book reviews, I think I need to stick with Nancy Pearl and Maureen Corrigan. Alan Cheuse and I just don't share the same tastes. Freed's writing carried me along, but I didn't get anything out of the story. The setting involves a Jewish family in South Africa, right after WWII. Race, class, and religious conflicts were to be expected, and Freed also packed in themes of blame, guilt, and responsibility. All these issues, combined with unappealing characters, left me unmoved. The Pygmalion element also didn't work for me and creeped me out a little.
July 5, 2009
Quirky little book. I was intrigued and the two main characters were odd and interesting enough to pull me along, but I actually felt like it could have/should have been a little longer. The immediate setting was vivid, but several other aspects weren't fully realized: the greater context of South Africa, religious tensions for Jews after WWII, and the sense of responsibility for the main protagonist's silly, sloppy actions. Wish I could give it 4 stars. I'm still thinking about the story.
Profile Image for Valerie.
31 reviews
March 15, 2012
This book was 'weird', I can see why some might call it gothic, but the story was so intriguing. I can say I enjoyed it. Love the author's command of Cressida's voice, even at different ages. I thought the story's style was dark and ambiguous and vague, which was annoying and yet at the same time kept drawing me in. I actually found myself satisfied with the ending. For the family friendly reader, there is some sexuality.
134 reviews
August 27, 2010
Took me a bit to get into this: expected a standard plot & finally realized it's like life - there ain't not plot, it goes day by day till you reach a defining moment, and on from there! Once I stopped expecting 'normal', it was easy to sit back & watch it unfold as the pages turned!
Profile Image for Ellyn Bache.
Author 21 books32 followers
July 19, 2017
A quirky and sometimes creepy story about a girl in a dysfunctional family in South Africa just after WWII. She's ten when the book begins, a bit traumatized by the events of a war she didn't witness, relegated with her mother and sister to the servant's quarters of an estate owned by a man severely disfigured in battle but dealing with it better than the people who have to look at him do. The novel is populated by illegitimate children (or maybe not), loose women, strange-acting relatives and (happily) some really decent servants. I kept thinking, "this novel is ridiculous" and meaning to put it down, but somehow it swept me along and I read every word.
Profile Image for Lynn.
511 reviews
October 13, 2017
Ugh. Started out well enough, but much like a Seinfeld episode, it was about nothing. Whining, simpering rich people, only concerned with themselves. That was wasted time I'll never get back.
Profile Image for Navida.
204 reviews
July 29, 2018
Rich writing and fascinating characters. Ultimately the ending wasn't satisfying.
Profile Image for Laura.
764 reviews55 followers
May 17, 2011
A blurb on the back of the book likened this book to a Beauty & the Beast tale, and it certainly is that. However, it's a somewhat disturbing story, in that the heroine is a teenage girl (13 at the outset) who became (eventually) the wife of the beast...in this case, a severely burned war vet who came home to recover. There was a definite undercurrent of something inappropriate there, and though it was made "relatively" clear that nothing untoward happened between the two until 1) she was of legal age, and 2) she made the first move, it nonetheless struck me as a little pedophelic, and as such a little creepy.

Most of the characters in this book were supremely unlikeable. Cressida was a flighty, emotional, snotty teenager for the majority of the book. She grew out of it to a great extent by the end, but I had a hard time liking her, though when it came to choosing between her and most of the other characters, it was impossible to root for anyone else. Her mother was not only useless, but amoral, selfish, and ridiculously snobby. Her sister was stupid and mean. Both were jealous bitches in the extreme. Mrs. Arbuthnot (Mr. Harding's housekeeper) was an absolute shrew. Edgar was a creep and a pervert, as was his roommate (and tutor). George Harding himself was weird and a little creepy, but he ultimate proved himself to be a reasonably decent man.

Phineas was hilarious and blunt, and I loved him. But best of all was Elspeth, who proved her mettle and the truth of her heart by letting go of the man she loved (George Harding) so he have who he loved most (Cressida). I loved her for her unselfishness, and her true & freely given friendship to Cressida.

In the end, the book is a winner. It provoked an emotional reaction in me, and made me pause to evaluate exactly what makes a relationship work. In the case here, it was definitely a collection of unusual characteristics that perhaps in any other circumstance would not have worked. And perhaps that is, in essence, the beauty of Beauty and the Beast.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Samantha Glasser.
1,543 reviews52 followers
July 18, 2012
The Servants' Quarters is a story told in three parts. The first begins with Cressida, the narrator and protagonist of the story. She is only ten years old, and she is terrified of the Germans. Although she was born after WWII, her family has felt the effects of it; her sister Miranda suffers from nightmares as well and her father's paralysis is a constant burden on the family. To make matters worse, George Harding, the wealthy owner of a brilliant house on the hill, was scarred during the war, and his disfigurements are an abhorrent sight to young Cressida. Her stubbornness causes her to take the opposite stance of her mother when the family has to move into Mr. Harding's servants' quarters because of financial reasons. The second part of the story shows Cressida as a teenager of fifteen, still at odds with her family, but now taken under Mr. Harding's wing. Rumors circulate that she is an illegitimate child of Mr. Harding's brother, but she doesn't feel that his kindness to her stems from guilt. The third section shows Cressida at eighteen, and now the reason for Mr. Harding's interest has become clear.

The best part of Freed's story is the central character. Cressida is interesting enough to carry the story, although in spite of her "wild child" personality, she can be somewhat predictable. The Servants' Quarters is not without faults. The story tends to jump around frequently, leaving the reader without a sense of the causes and effects of the actions. Some of the episodes feel unfinished, like Freed has given us an outline that she needs to fill in. Many of the events remain unexplained with an occasional offhanded and unsatisfying half-explanation. What could have been a better novel exists instead as a haphazardly put-together draft.
Profile Image for Merry.
243 reviews26 followers
November 24, 2014
Well I liked this one. It was a mess of read, as in the relationships were all so damaged, some physically as well as mentally. This is not a book about a pedophile as I read in someone's review - those people seek out 11 and under - this man, though he was twice her age, old enough to be her father, watched her from a distance and only after much conversation, many years, and extenuating circumstances did he fall, and had sex with this young girl at 17, which still is not appropriate, but it was not pedophilia, as I will not knowingly read a book on that subject matter. Their relationship was odd, and even though I felt this man could have maintained what he had always wanted for her, to free her from a life of chaos, a terrible mother and to get a college education etc.... in the end, by following with his feelings and not his brain!, and not doing what he had set out to do, save her, he kept her from college, kept her for himself. In my eyes this cripples her, but only time will tell. Money does not solve everything, and an education is a valuable tool for life. Too many relationships to comment on, but the author did a great job uncovering the character's personalties, and kept them consistent throughout the book. Interesting dynamics between the characters and my compliments to the author for keeping them all straight while offering us so much depth into their personal psyche.
Profile Image for Terri.
494 reviews5 followers
February 10, 2014
For a young girl of ten, Cressida is amazingly complex. George Harding, at two and half times her age, notices. George Harding, severely wounded and deformed in the war, spends most of his time at his home, a large mansion built with sugar money. He cares for his nephew, Edgar and a variety of people through the years occupy his carriage house including Cressida's family.

Cressida's father is comatose following a smack on the head with a golf club which leaves her mother, Muriel, to take care of raising the family and managing to get by financially.

Taking place in South Africa give the story an exotic feel and yet the lives of Cressida's family is more akin to white trash.

This story has a mysterious quality and the characters are fascinatingly complex. It reminded me of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It is one of the few books I would reread just because there is so much packed into each word and sentence; it is like a piece of art that needs to be studied and pondered.
Profile Image for Susan Andres.
20 reviews1 follower
June 6, 2014
While reading this book, I kept thinking of John Gardner's words in On Becoming a Novelist: "an aesthetically successful story will contain a sense of life's strangeness." So I was gratified to see how many of the reviews here describe this novel as "strange," "odd," or "weird." It's an deeply unsettling book, not in a sinister way but in disturbing ways that shake up your assumptions and expectations. In that way, it reminds me of two of my favorite books, Rachel Cusk's brilliant and gloriously satisfying The Country Life and Jonathan Evison's equally brilliant and satisfying The Advanced Fundamentals of Caregiving. While Freed's tale never fully sank its teeth into me the way those two books did, it definitely held me. I rarely read a book from start to finish in a single day, as I did this one, or put a book down with such a peaceful sense of completion.

Profile Image for Shannon.
377 reviews2 followers
January 23, 2016
Slow to begin, but draws you in about 2/3 of the way through. I don't know how to categorize this one; it seems to resist pigeonholing. Set in South Africa after WWII, but not really Booker Prize fodder- not focused enough on the setting. The narrator comes of age, but it's not really about that (or maybe it is). There's a romance, but it's not really about that either. Perhaps it's about a relationship. The two primary characters (our narrator, who grows from a young girl to a young adult, and a wealthy man disfigured in the war who plays numerous roles in her life) are carefully drawn and compelling. Everyone else is roughly sketched, but that suffices. Overall, I liked it but I'm not sure why.
Profile Image for Butterflycager.
93 reviews14 followers
March 7, 2011
I chose this book because I needed South Africa for an Around the World reading challenge. That, plus the fact that it was an extremely short book enabled me to finish it. It wasn't that the writing was poor - it wasn't at all, and I would read Lynn Freed again. My issue with this book was the characters - they were some of the nastiest and most manipulative creatures I have have ever read about. I found myself rejoicing that that they were only fictional creations, and not real people that I would ever encounter. I guess I am just one of those readers who really needs somebody to identify with and sympathize with in order to enjoy a book, and I didn't find anybody in this story appealing.
Profile Image for Dana Burgess.
242 reviews35 followers
August 18, 2012
The Servants’ Quarters by Lynn Freed is a little book that packs a big punch. It is an interesting exploration of the residual effects of WWII on the ‘next generation’: those kids that were babies during the war, or born just after, and were raised by those who lived through it. The story itself is set in Africa and I was looking forward to the ethnic slant that would bring. Sadly, that slant was missing. The novel read as if it could have been set anywhere. It was slightly disappointing but the story was good enough that I was able to overlook that. Slightly reminiscent of Jane Eyre, Lynn Freed none-the-less stays away from a retelling, and The Servants’ Quarters ends up being a fabulous and unique novel. Definitely worth a look.
Profile Image for Paul.
423 reviews47 followers
April 23, 2010
Definitely well written, in complete control of the language. The character dynamics were completely believable and very interesting. Protagonist is really well drawn. Overall, though, I wast just sort of bored by the narrative. Nothing about it ever really grabbed me. I don't think this is the book's fault, it just wasn't my thing, really. Again, it was great to see all the characters as they played off the protagonist, but story-wise, I wanted more. More what, I don't know, but something. This is a short book, and time moves really quickly. Maybe spending some more time with these great characters would have done it.
Profile Image for Joanna.
148 reviews
June 27, 2015
From the title, I imagined The Servants’ Quarters to be an altogether different kind of story. Instead, we are quickly introduced to Cressida whose family has fallen on difficult times and they are forced to “move up the hill” to the former Servants’ Quarters building on the property of Mr. George Harding. Mr. Harding is disfigured from a War injury and Cressida is initially disgusted by him. Over the years, as Cressida’s family’s circumstances ebb and flow and they move up and down the hill, Mr. Harding is the one constant.

Read the rest of my review at:

10 reviews
July 11, 2010
It's an interesting, coming-of-age story about a young girl growing up with a dysfunctional mother and sister and having to relocate to live in servan't quarters of a wealthy man's estate due to money problems. She develops a strong bond with the man, who 30+ years older, mentors her in literature, teaches her, guides her and she eventually falls in love with him as a young adult. It's easy-to-read and enjoyable to hear what happens to this young girl, who is creative, clever and full of aspirations.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Joan.
206 reviews7 followers
August 2, 2009
Set in Africa, this post-WWII story is a coming of age story centering on a young girl whose family moves between the worlds of privilege and dependency. With unusual and disturbing characters surrounding her, she struggles with issues of identity and belonging.

While not the most gripping novel of this type, I found the perspective fresh and intriguing, and there were enough plot twists to keep my interest.
Profile Image for Pamela.
168 reviews2 followers
August 15, 2009
It was definitely a strange book, but it was smooth and well-written. It was also a quick read.

I liked the character development, and the relationships were complex and interesting. I was a bit thrown with the last part of the book--it was a bit too strange for me. There were also things such as the location that really didn't make a difference when you thought they would have.

It's definitely not a boring book, and it will keep you thinking, so I'd suggest it.
Profile Image for Katie.
705 reviews7 followers
October 30, 2009
Another one of the randomly-selected-from-the-library's-new-release-shelf books. This one was extremely well written, and had a lot of neat literary elements. The beginning third of the book seems so hopeless that i found it somewhat depressing, but the end was very well done and you are happy that the main character has found some semblance of moderate happiness. An interesting look at life in general, and an enlightening perspective on people's character.
Profile Image for Allyson.
627 reviews
November 11, 2009
This was a very odd book. I do not know The Beauty & The Beast story but read on the book that the author used that story as inspiration. It felt very superficial, as if she was only skimming the surface of her characters. And this was after Half Broke Horses. Granted the book was really short but still it felt like a watercolor wash rather than an oil painting. I would explore her other books, maybe.
Profile Image for Katharine.
63 reviews
March 10, 2012
This book had three of my favorite things going for it: a "Beauty and the Beast" influenced story line, exquisite prose, and atmosphere...atmosphere...atmosphere.
I absolutely loved it. The characters were sympathetic, engaging, and beautifully drawn. The story drew me in and held me, which is impressive as its quite a small book. That's its one fault though...I only wish it had been longer.
Sequel? Prequel? Please?
Profile Image for Teresa.
1,890 reviews13 followers
February 12, 2012
hmmmm. i'm honestly not sure what to make of this book. part of me found is a beautifully written, historical romance. another part of me found it simply...inappropriate.

maybe i'm too stuck in the current day expectations of what makes an acceptable pairing, speaking mostly of age, but i was a bit creeped out by the dynamics of the relationship in this story.

you'll have to read it to decide for yourself, however, i won't be the one to recommend it.
Profile Image for Melanie.
23 reviews
June 17, 2014
I wanted to read something that I would not ordinarily pick up (contemporary fiction is not my go-to genre) so I grabbed a few books at random from an overstock section and chose The Servant’s Quarters because I liked its opening sentence best. The story was a little different than I expected but I enjoyed it from start to finish. I think that readers who enjoy young protagonists will especially enjoy this one.
Profile Image for Iva.
760 reviews2 followers
June 19, 2009
This wonderfully observant novel but a masterly writer applies a variety of themes. The most prominent is a coming-of-age story. Others are:
South African Jews
WWII and its effects
Mothers and daughters
British class system
The Forsyte Saga
The Holocaust

It's a compelling story,
86 reviews
April 1, 2010
Easy to read, but once I was almost all the way through it, I realized I didn't really like the writing. So many things not fully developed/dropped in this story - sense of place, time, character's pasts, motives. Nothing felt right by the end, but instead of feeling unsatisfying, I just didn't care that much: it was too light of a read to become really engrossed in the characters.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 88 reviews

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