Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book review: The Bride's House, by Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas is a bestselling novelist whose works, puzzlingly, always seemed to have greater appeal to mainstream readers than to fans of her chosen genre of historical fiction. When I saw her latest novel come up for review on LibraryThing, I figured it was time I picked up one of her books and learned what I’d been missing.

A sweeping novel of family ties, long-held secrets, and the continuing search for love, The Bride’s House tells of three women linked by blood, circumstance, and the large white Victorian house in Georgetown, Colorado, that becomes home for each in turn. Though very different personality-wise, all are plain-spoken, tenacious, and eager to please, and all struggle to find happiness.

For Nealie Bent, a 17-year-old runaway whose striking looks and vibrant personality attract the eye of local miners, the newly built residence symbolizes her desire to rise above her status as a hired girl at a Georgetown boardinghouse in 1880. She has her choice of men, preferring sophisticated engineer Will Spaulding over uncouth yet reliable Charlie Dumas (and who wouldn’t, at seventeen?). Her choice, combined with Will’s subsequent betrayal of her, is the novel’s most predictable aspect.

Pearl, a shy and plain spinster of 30 in the year 1912, is adored by her wealthy father, who relies on her so heavily that he chases away potential suitors. Her decision to pursue a romance with a handsome businessman sets father and daughter against one another and transforms her life – not necessarily for the better.

And for 18-year-old Susan, an heiress growing up in 1950s-era Chicago, the Bride’s House brings back memories of childhood summers in the mountains, a time of intense peer pressure and her growing love for a neighborhood boy with big dreams. Outside politics don't play a strong role except in this section, which is set against the backdrop of the Korean War.

While the characters are recognizable types, and sometimes behave in frustrating ways – the devoted family housekeeper despairs of Pearl’s excessive timidity, too – they still have many surprises in store. The flowing style drew me in, and the emotional shifts in the plot had a way of raising my spirits then filling them with sorrow moments later.

The women’s choices are driven not just by their temperament but also by their social and financial situations and the prevailing mores of the time. “Georgetown doesn’t seem like a place where conventions matter much,” Will tells Nealie early on, but that’s never exactly true. Over the next 70 years, as rough-and-tumble shacks give way to elegant homes, the demand for silver rises and falls, and mining towns become ghost towns and then tourist attractions, attitudes loosen in some ways but not others.

As Dallas reveals in the acknowledgments, the novel’s centerpiece is based on a house that the she and her husband bought as a derelict and restored to its former glory. Her affection for it and for the region as a whole is ever-present; Georgetown, with its distinctive mountain charm, is not just a haven for fortune-seekers but also for dreamers and anyone looking to start anew.

With all three strands woven together, The Bride’s House became a more complex story than I expected from such a straightforward telling. A comfortable novel about women’s lives, it will resonate strongly with female readers, who will take away from it the pervading theme of how we’re all shaped by our circumstances but shouldn’t be defined by them.

The Bride's House will be published by St. Martin's Press on April 26th (this coming Tuesday) in hardcover at $24.99/$28.99 in Canada (352pp).


  1. This was interesting. I expect there are other HF writers whose fan base i wider than just the HF community. We don't hear much of Sandra Dallas over in the UK, so I'd like to check her out. Thanks for your thorough review,I like the sound of it.

  2. Hi Deborah, if you end up reading it, I'll be curious what you think. Many US-based historical fiction readers I know avoid Western settings (I'm not one of them, obviously) so I expect that has something to do with it. I'm glad her books have a strong readership; she has a lengthy backlist, too.

  3. I really enjoyed many of her earlier novels, but I haven't read her books for several years. You've convinced me to pick up Sandra Dallas again. Thanks!

  4. I've always been a fan of Sandra Dallas, but you're right, she's not an author generally thought of by historical fiction readers. She was initially suggested to me by friends who read more cozy, mainstream novels, and I can see that. Despite the Western settings, her books are quiet stories about women, often doing things like quilting and baking pies. And yet they are strong women, struggling to bring civility to a wild corner of the country. This is a great review and I'll hunt this book down. Thanks!

  5. Also, if you're looking for another Sandra Dallas to read, I recommend Alice's Tulips. It's an epistolary novel with a really strong voice. Letters from a feisty young bride to her husband, off soldiering in the Civil War, and to her sister back home.

  6. Great points, Jessica, and thanks for the recommendation. I didn't find The Bride's House especially quiet because the pace was brisk, but I know what you mean; it was about relationships and the social fabric of the time rather than larger historical events.

    Carrie, I hope you enjoy this one too. I took this one for review as a way of ensuring that I read it - it's gotten difficult to schedule time for reading everything I want to!

  7. I don't know if my work counts as "Western," but I definitely agree with the comment that we are affected by the times we live in, sometimes in ways we don't even realize.

    When I speak to people now, it 's pretty clear which ones have been hit by the economic crash.

  8. Anonymous9:07 AM

    Great review! You defiantly have me interested and in want of picking up a copy of this novel and diving into Nealie's world.