“‘He looked at her fingers which were already purple and bloated, and wondered if Howard Carter had had this problem with Tutankhamun.
‘There was a tomb that Tutankhamun had!’ he remarked to Mrs. Howell-Thomas. ‘Absolutely magnificent!’
“what are you talking about in there, Wilfred?’ said his da, who was sitting on the flowerbed wall, drinking his tea. ‘Are you talking to a corpse again?’”
- The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price,
Purveyor of Superior Funerals, Wendy Jones
On a sunny day in a Welsh village in 1924, Wilfred Price finds himself so beguiled by his surroundings, his picnic lunch, and the lemon-curd yellow dress worn by his charming date, he proposes marriage to her—quite by accident. Though Wilfred tries to take it back, events conspire against him. Grace Reese, it turns out, is secretly pregnant and the proposal is a godsend that will save this doctor’s daughter’s reputation. Word gets out immediately of the proposal (and the pregnancy), and she can’t bring herself to tell her anyone it was a mistake. Wilfred, meanwhile, is a newly minted undertaker, trying to establish himself as a trusted name and grow his business. He can’t afford to tarnish his reputation with rumours either. And when the lovely Flora calls on him to bury her father, he finds himself drawn into a triangle that is deceptively complex.
Debut author Wendy Jones is a delightful writer. This book is a warm, gentle read with deep undercurrents. She perfectly captures the time and place, the nuances of small-village life, of class and gender normative roles and restrictions, and of the power of gossip and the all-important reputation. Her prose is lilting and lovely, setting a slow, deliberate pace that matches the story well. Her characterization is spot-on: Wilfred is the sort of earnest young man who doesn’t invite trouble, and who doesn’t yet have the backbone to stand up for himself. His relationship with his widower father is a beautiful thing, and perhaps my favourite part of the story.
Grace could have been set as the villain of the piece, but she is always treated with sympathy. She is terrified of the shame her out-of-wedlock pregnancy will bring to the family, and she doesn’t trust that her appearances-obsessed mother won’t throw her out of the house. Locked in her own misery, she hopes Wilfred will grow to love her and feels terrible for making him miserable too. For all its light, countryside charm, Grace’s trajectory and options in particular are difficult to come to terms with. And Flora, the woman Wilfred truly wants to be with, has her own ghosts to lay to rest. The story can be frustrating at times because the situations the characters entangle themselves in could have been solved by open communication, but that’s a very 21st-century approach to problems that simply weren’t discussed in the 1920s. The book never betrays its time period for modern characterization or morality.
This book could have been a farce, or too silly or broad. It is none of those things. Instead, this is a tale both troubling and charming. The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals is a thoughtful and lovely read, perfect for a quiet summer day.
Four out of five blue pencils