The novel misses the mark. It also fails to be convincing in its point of view since the first person narrator is absent from many of the scenes he describes, so one wonders how he knows everything he tells the reader.
What the novel does achieve is a heavy and saddening tone. The novel is very detailed in its depiction of the titled classes dullness and lack of intellectualism in 1990s England. It is a world unfamiliar to American readers - we know of the royals, but all the lords and ladies are alien to us. It is almost shocking to find this snobbish Jane Austen type world still exists two hundred years later, and without any Elizabeth Bennetts to redeem it. The title is not very descriptive for the book. Social Climbing or Upper Class Adultery would be more fitting, if less catchy.
Without revealing the plot, the story is of Edith, a middle class woman who manages to marry an Earl, then begins an affair with an actor for reasons she herself does not understand--is it boredom, sexual attraction to the actor, the realization that the false world she imagined does not exist? Once she commits adultery, her titled husband's class cuts her, not because she is an adulterer but because "to them, her folly was in abandoning the false values she had endorsed with her marriage."
The question is whether Edith will stay with her husband and even if she chooses her husband, if his class will allow her to return to him. Reference is not made directly to the Prince and Princess of Wales's romance and divorce, but it looms in the back of the reader's mind--the husband is named Charles.
Unfortunately, while the tale is interesting and attempts to be insightful, it fails to be intriguing. I never really cared whether Edith and Charles patched things up or not. These people appear to be completely insulated from the modern day and age, and while I suppose that is precisely Fellowes' point, I guess it just isn't MY cup of tea.