Friday, August 07, 2020

The original Mrs. Robinson's story: Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin

Finola Austin’s perceptive debut imagines the first-person viewpoint of Lydia Robinson: the woman notorious in Brontë lore for supposedly having seduced her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, with the end of their affair leading to his dissolution, depression, and early death. But is this a fair assessment?

Among historical fiction subjects, this is about as “high concept” as it gets. It’s surprising no other novelist has previously claimed her as a protagonist, and it’s also fortunate that this character – the original Mrs. Robinson – was taken on by a writer capable of doing justice to this troubling, baggage-laden historical figure. 

The main setting is Thorp Green Hall in Little Ouseburn, a village not far from York, beginning in 1843. Having lost her beloved youngest daughter and her mother in close succession, Lydia is overcome by grief. With her twenty-year marriage to Edmund Robinson having gone cold, her teenage daughters occupied with their own concerns, and the family governess (the overly serious Anne Brontë) spurning any hope of friendship, Lydia feels like nobody sees her for herself. Even her own name, in a sense, has been supplanted, as she shares it with her pretty eldest daughter.  

When Miss Brontë’s flame-haired poet brother, Branwell, appears on the scene to tutor Lydia’s son, Ned, their shared interests in music, theatre, and literature create a spark between Branwell and Lydia, even though he’s twenty-five, while she’s eighteen years older.  Their romantic encounters demonstrate Austin’s skill as a writer; there’s an awkwardness about them that evokes less of a grand, perfect passion than the result of two people’s desperate and individual cries for attention.  Both come alive as real people with many flaws and rough edges, between Branwell’s neediness and alcoholism and Lydia’s selfishness, especially since her daughters are of an age when they need a mother’s loving guidance. 

Rather than developing a story about Lydia’s downfall and redemption, which would feel both simplistic and false, Austin creates in Lydia a multifaceted portrait of an unhappy, neglected wife and mother whose passionate nature is suppressed by everyone around her: her distant husband, her overbearing mother-in-law, and society as a whole.  Once she begins acting on her desires, though, she discovers she wants more from a partner than what Branwell can give. At the same time, alas, the rumors of adultery become impossible to contain. Lydia’s questionable choices make her difficult to admire, while at the same time, one can’t help but hope she’ll find fulfillment. One can also appreciate how Lydia's impressions of all her relationships shift over the course of the story, as she looks back on what each of them brought her.

The language and dialogue have a Victorian feel without seeming archaic, and the characters’ social milieu reflects the period, too.  Lydia Robinson may be best known as “Brontë’s mistress,” but as Austin shows, she's much more than this. In fact, one of the novel’s greatest accomplishments is its moving illustration of how women are diminished when defined by their relationships to men. 

Brontë’s Mistress was published by Atria this week (I reviewed it from an Edelweiss copy).

Another quick note: comments re-enabled

Comments are now enabled as before. My attempt to restrict them had the unfortunate effect of turning off commenting altogether for most readers; the Blogger platform allows for few choices in how to configure it. As for the spam, it's back, but I'll continue dealing with it while exploring other options for controlling it.  Thanks for your understanding!

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Passing Fancies by Marlowe Benn, a Jazz Age mystery set amid the Harlem Renaissance

The title of this sophisticated second entry in the Julia Kydd mystery series (after Relative Fortunes) is cleverly apropos. It’s set in Manhattan during the freewheeling Jazz Age, circa 1924, which conjures up images of frivolous, fun-loving pursuits, but here, “passing” also refers to racial identity and crossing the color line.

Julia, a wealthy 25-year-old recently recovered from the near loss of her inherited fortune, is a bibliophile with ambition. She dreams of expanding her small private press, and for this, she needs authors.

At a publishing soiree, she meets the tall, fair Eva Pruitt, an up-and-coming novelist, and they develop a close rapport. Later, Julia is startled to learn that Eva is Black; Eva’s debut, it’s implied, will be a roman à clef about her experiences as a Harlem nightclub performer. When Eva’s manuscript (she only had one copy; one can sense all authors cringing) goes missing, and her boss is found dead, Eva’s the most likely suspect, but Julia can’t believe she did it.

Set amid the Harlem Renaissance, the themes of this novel taking place nearly a century ago are also unerringly modern, including police brutality, African American writers’ difficulties with the publishing industry, and white blindness to racial inequities. Eva is a well-rounded character with a complicated past, though her friendship with Julia blossoms too swiftly. Those enamored of fine bindings and quality fonts can indulge in their passions along with Julia, and language aficionados will appreciate the cultured writing.

As with the previous book, Julia’s one-time nemesis and half-brother, the urbane Philip, who helps to solve puzzlers for the police, is probably the most interesting character of all. He and Julia make a good investigating team, a revelation Julia slowly catches onto.

Passing Fancies was published by Lake Union in 2020 (I reviewed it from NetGalley for August's Historical Novels Review).

Quick note: Comment policy temporarily changed

I appreciate it when blog readers take the time to comment on one of my posts.  Over the last few weeks, though, so many unpleasant spam comments have been arriving that I've had to take action. Comments are moderated, so the spam never shows up on the blog, but I still have to manage and delete them all, and they were getting through even with word verification turned on.  In order to deter the bots, I've temporarily set comments to blog members/followers only, and it seems to be working.  Apologies for the inconvenience. I plan to lift this later on and see if the situation has improved.

I also welcome thoughts and comments via the blog's Facebook page.

Thanks for continuing to read my reviews and other posts!

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Vanessa Riley's multicultural Regency romance A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby

In the author’s notes at the end of her lively new historical romance, Vanessa Riley reveals that England was the home to at least ten thousand people of Black or mixed-race ancestry during Jane Austen’s time. Regency romances typically feature love stories between members of the white aristocracy. Fortunately, a growing number of writers have been creating characters representing the diversity among the English populace at the time.

This first book in the Rogues and Remarkable Women series introduces Patience Amelia Jordan, former Duchess of Repington, a courageous young heiress originally from Demerara in the West Indies (now part of Guyana). Ever since her husband Colin’s suicide, Patience has been treated abominably by Colin’s uncle, who had her thrown into Bedlam for a trumped-up reason.

Now she’s forced to sneak into her marital home, Hamlin Hall, disguised as a groom in order to feed and watch over her son, Lionel. Then the new Duke, Busick Strathmore, arrives to take up his position and Lionel’s guardianship, starting afresh by dismissing all his predecessor’s staff. With the support of the Widow’s Grace, a group of widows helping her regain custody of her child, Patience becomes Lionel’s wet nurse and nanny while seeking evidence about the true nature of Colin’s financial dealings and mysterious death. Over time, Patience and the Duke form a tentative alliance that turns flirtatious and develops into love.

Their connection may seem subdued and cerebral, at first, when compared with other romance novels. However, I found Riley’s style of subtle, character-driven love story a refreshing change. Repington is a wounded soldier who had lost his leg during the Siege of Badajoz and, while adjusting to his new situation, plans his return to the battlefield. He quickly comes to love Lionel, though as a military man, his child-rearing methods are amusingly rigid.

Patience is a loving mother who wants only to return to her island with Lionel, but the Duke may change her mind. Riley also draws on elements of Patience’s cultural heritage to illustrate who she is. I particularly liked the scenes in which she debates praying to the Demararan god of protection but wasn’t sure if he had any control over what happened in England, and another where she dons a traditional, marigold-colored dress that her beloved late mother crafted. I did wonder why the Duke didn’t uncover Patience’s real identity sooner, and the shifts between Patience’s first-person viewpoint and the Duke’s third-person perspective feel unnecessarily distancing. Overall, though, I enjoyed this romance between two courageous, kind people, both outsiders in different ways, who genuinely respect each other. Patience’s marriage with Colin seemed a bit shaky, but I sense that her new relationship will endure.

And as for “Busick” – it’s not a traditional romance name, but it fits the period. (For example, Sir Busick Harwood was a well-known English physician who died in 1814, the year this novel takes place).

A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby was published by Kensington on June 30 (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Love, war, and atonement: Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan

Kiernan (The Baker's Secret, 2017) movingly charts a couple’s relationship alongside the development of WWII’s Manhattan Project.

In 1943 Chicago, fun-loving Brenda Dubie first meets Charlie Fish, a skinny mathematician (inspired by the historical Charles Fisk), when he visits her family’s music shop. Over time, Charlie’s increasing technical expertise leads to his reluctant transfer to Los Alamos. Ignorant of his top secret and pivotal role in building detonators, Brenda urges Charlie to do his patriotic duty.

The characterizations feel bracingly real. Brenda’s youthful, self-centered haughtiness prevents her from appreciating Charlie’s finer qualities; Charlie’s earnest devotion to his work and Brenda drives him to actions with ramifications he doesn’t understand until later. Brenda is a challenging heroine, but her wistful reminiscences, as she looks back decades later, demonstrate her emotional growth.

Kiernan recreates the zeitgeist of America leading up to the atomic bomb on a national and personal level: the eager anticipation of wartime’s end, the grimly fascinating science, and the growing sense of guilt and dread. Simultaneously tender and hard-hitting, this riveting story offers much to reflect upon.

Universe of Two will be published on August 4th by William Morrow/HarperCollins. This review ran in Booklist's April 1st issue (reprinted with permission). The novel was originally scheduled for May publication but was delayed, as has been happening frequently in the industry, due to the pandemic.  I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy.

Additional thoughts: when it comes to fictionalizing historical characters and their experiences, authors have several approaches to consider. In creating an imagined character closely based on mathematician Charles B. Fisk, but who isn't him, Kiernan grants himself the freedom to deviate from the real person's life in order to tell the story he wants. As such, readers are able to separate the two men (one real, one fictional), and also learn more about Fisk afterwards if they wish to.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls by Ursula Hegi, a tale of women's connections in 19th-century Germany

Perennial book-club favorite Hegi’s (Children and Fire, 2011) compassionately observant new novel takes place on Nordstrand island in North Frisia, Germany, where the line between fact and centuries-old myth can feel as blurred as that between sea and sky. The offbeat characters enhance the quasi-dreamlike effect, but the scenarios they face are starkly real.

After a giant wave sweeps her three oldest children into the Nordsee in 1878, Lotte Jansen withdraws from life and from her infant son, Wilhelm. While Lotte’s husband, Kalle, a toymaker, runs away with a traveling circus, Wilhelm is nursed by Tilli, an 11-year-old resident of the St. Margaret’s Home for Pregnant Girls, whose own baby is adopted at birth.

The nuns at St. Margaret’s are an unorthodox bunch who instruct their young charges in art and scholarly pursuits. Meanwhile, Sabine, the circus’ seamstress, seeks a husband for her cognitively impaired daughter.

The plot ambles along while threading together the stories of the women, who have the heaviest burdens to bear. Their emotional hardships are satisfyingly leavened by softer moments of romantic and familial love.

The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls was published by Flatiron in June; I reviewed it for Booklist's May 15th issue (reprinted with permission).  Doesn't it have a beautiful cover? It reflects the setting and storyline well.  I read it from an Edelweiss copy, which didn't have the jacket art, so I hadn't taken a close look before now.  It really does get across the blurred borders between sky and sea that Hegi emphasizes within the text.

Hegi has written many other historical novels set in 19th- and 20th-century Germany, including the Oprah pick Stones from the River (1994). This was my first experience reading one of her novels.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

More Miracle than Bird by Alice Miller, fiction about Georgie Hyde-Lees, wife of poet W. B. Yeats

The lens through which a story is told makes all the difference. Miller’s revelatory debut novel, written in crisp, elegant prose, focuses on Georgie Hyde-Lees, wife of Anglo-Irish poet W. B. Yeats.  Though Georgie isn’t his greatest love (Maud Gonne has that distinction), she turns out to be his ideal partner, which he takes a long time realizing.

The story initially moves between 1916, as Georgie nurses wounded WWI officers in a dreary London hospital, and 1914, when she approaches the eccentric, much older Yeats at a soirée and requests an invitation to a clandestine occult society. Missing her late father, Georgie longs for proof of the soul’s immortality, and her quest draws readers into the perennially intriguing theme of spiritualism and the reasons why people pursue it.

Though slowly paced, the novel offers ample conflict as Georgie faces difficult choices. The bleak atmosphere aptly suits the wartime backdrop, and Miller deftly presents a portrait of Georgie, a young woman calibrating her place in the world, and her shifting relationship with the man she adores.

More Miracle Than Bird was published by Tin House in June.  I reviewed it for the 5/15/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission).  The intriguing title comes from a line in Yeats' poem "Byzantium."

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The First Emma by Camille di Maio, historical fiction about a successful Texas businesswoman

By all accounts, Emma Koehler was an extraordinary woman. A prominent figure in the history of San Antonio, Texas, she was a German immigrant who ran the city’s Pearl Brewery, succeeding her late husband Otto in the role; she used her ingenuity to reinvent the business during Prohibition and keep it afloat during the Depression.

It’s fair to say that she wouldn’t have attained such success if her personal life had been less traumatic. Following a traffic accident that left her a semi-invalid, Otto took her two German-born nurses – both also named Emma – as his mistresses, installing them in their own house, and one of them murdered him in 1914.

In Camille di Maio’s fifth novel, young Baltimore native Mabel Hartley is hired in 1943 to take down the elderly Emma Koehler’s memoirs. The two women’s interactions create an intriguing dynamic: while beer is Emma’s lifeblood, Mabel avoids alcohol after seeing how it destroyed her father’s life. Mabel is a realistic character for her time, but her storyline lacks conflict. Her developing romance with Emma’s nephew, Erik, is sweet but has few surprises, and his presence in her life feels too convenient.

Emma’s story has more drama and bite – with the outline above, how could it not? Leaving her siblings behind to marry Otto at seventeen and move with him to San Antonio, Emma quickly discovers his workaholic nature. She also learns that to escape her loneliness, she must educate herself and meet Otto on his own ground: the brewery.

The lurid prologue depicting Otto’s murder feels somewhat misleading for the rest of the book, which isn’t a thriller. Comparatively few historical novels focus on successful businesswomen, however, and Emma Koehler is a deserving subject. Her position and attitude combine to create an admirable character that readers will root for.

The First Emma was published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, and I'd reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review from NetGalley.

Fun fact: the elegant and historic Hotel Emma in San Antonio, which was named after Emma Koehler, was the site of Pearl's Brewhouse starting in the late 19th century.