The novel opens during the 1899 Christmas season. Kitty Coakley is a lovely young woman of twenty who lives with her working-class parents and her four older brothers in the parish of St. Patrick, in Chicago’s West Loop. Although Kitty and her family are Irish Catholics, this isn’t the immigrant saga one might expect. One generation removed from Ireland, Kitty considers Chicago her first and only home, and she’s enough of an American to know how to dream big.
While her parents want to see her settled with a nice Irish boy like Brian Kelleher, despite his lack of ambition and his strong-but-silent ways, Kitty yearns to escape the drudgery she sees in her future – her mother and older sister are living it – by establishing herself in her own career. Readers follow Kitty as she matures, seeks out new opportunities after her initial hopes are dashed, and struggles to balance her growing fondness for a Protestant former school friend, Henry Thomas, with her parents’ wishes. Henry’s viewpoint is revealed in alternating chapters, which show his difficult path to becoming a professional architect.
Naper renders turn-of-the-century Chicago in bountiful and exciting detail. From the shabby-but-respectable “Cabbage Patch” around West Adams Street where the Coakleys live to the slums around Hull House, and from the busy streetcars crossing the downtown to upscale receptions at the Palmer Mansion on Lake Shore Drive, the city comes alive with activity and local color. Occasionally extraneous facts interrupt the story, but the atmosphere certainly feels authentic, and readers should feel like they’ve gotten a quality tour of the city’s neighborhoods during all four seasons. Anyone who’s experienced the wind off Lake Michigan in January will nod their heads (and shiver) at the author’s descriptions.
In addition to capturing the physical milieu, the author depicts with care and subtlety the social barriers and cultural divisions affecting Chicagoans in that day and age. If Kitty’s Catholic family doesn’t approve of Henry, his wealthy parents – whose German Lutheran heritage is well presented – don’t think Kitty is good enough for him either. One cleverly written scene, depicting an elegant evening out at the symphony for the couple, illustrates how much their upbringing affects their behavior. And despite her ethnic background, not even Kitty is immune from prejudice. In her training to become a kindergarten teacher, she must take charge of recent immigrants’ young children and recoils from their drippy noses and abject poverty.
Beautiful Dreamer spans just over a year's time, and the action sometimes skips days or months with each new chapter. In the first half in particular, the plot forges ahead in fits and starts, much like one of those newfangled horseless carriages might proceed down Michigan Avenue. (It would have helped to have the date listed below each chapter title.) The writing is crisp and clean, but the plot lacks emotional intensity, a surprising deficit in a family story with romantic elements. Perhaps it was a deliberate choice to make Kitty’s Aunt Mabel the only fully rounded secondary character – a woman who runs her own millinery boutique at Marshall Field’s, she becomes Kitty’s role model – but it makes the novel less compelling than it might have been. Likewise, although the novel states the characters’ affection for one another, those sentiments don’t come through strongly on the page.
On the other hand, this isn’t a rose-colored-glasses romance, and if nothing else, one can appreciate the realism of Kitty’s situation. Whichever man she chooses and whichever path her career takes, there will be bumps along the road to happiness. Such, as they say, is life. In this respect, although the novel doesn’t always elicit deep feelings, its message is a wise one. Combined with an entertaining walk through historic Chicago, Kitty’s coming-of-age journey is ultimately worth following.
Beautiful Dreamer was published by Allium Press of Chicago in September at $14.99, or $17.99 in Canada (trade pb, 301pp).