Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book review: The Woman at the Light, by Joanna Brady

Joanna Brady’s good-natured and satisfying first novel is set in and around Key West during its first years under American control – nearly a century before Hemingway and other literati made the sleepy little city their own.

In 1839, Emily Lowry’s husband is the caretaker of the lighthouse on Wreckers' Cay, a remote neighbor isle in southwestern Florida. When Martin fails to return from a boating trip, she and her three (soon to be four) children are left to fend for themselves.  A light-skinned black man who appears on their island months later, after escaping a Caribbean-bound slave ship, turns out to be the answer to their prayers: Andrew is polite, strong, and handy with tools.  He's not bad looking, either.

With her pregnancy far advanced, Emily shows Andrew how to tend the light that alerts ships away from the shallow waters and coral reefs.  Far from the rigid society of her New Orleans birthplace, Emily lets her guard down and allows herself to fall in love with this charismatic man while hiding him from occasional visitors and persistent would-be suitors.

Keeping to antebellum-era realities, Brady knows their peaceful idyll can’t last and throws many obstacles their way, even more than the ones you’d expect.  Some of the plot turns are fanciful, and I found myself wanting to reach back 170 years to remind idealistic Emily to be more cautious. Her openness and spunk give her an appealing personality, though, and she deserves some happiness in her life. Her narrative also reveals the full history of her marriage to Martin, which isn’t the great love match she hoped for.

Her entertaining story is filled with mystery (What really happened to Martin?  Will Andrew be discovered?  How did he make it off the ship while still in shackles?) as well as romance, episodes of tragedy, and bursts of clever humor.  Emily's children play active roles, too.  The historical details are sufficient without being overwhelming, and the novel provides an enjoyable glimpse of the 19th-century Florida Keys, with its bustling mélange of American, Bahamian, and Cuban influences. Emily sails to and tours around Cuba – how times have changed! – and its importance to Spanish industry is highlighted.

Keeping a lighthouse in top shape was a strenuous, important task, and in explaining all the work involved – climbing the many stairs, trimming the wick daily, polishing the glass, and more – Brady also honors the real-life female lightkeepers on whom Emily is modeled.

The Woman at the Light will be published by St. Martin's Press on July 3rd at $14.99/$16.99 CAN in trade paperback (322pp).  I snagged this one from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program after reading the description and the many glowing Amazon reviews of the previous self-published edition.


  1. I'm curious - would you have read/reviewed it if you'd just seen the glowing reviews at the self-pubbed stage? Or do you regard the trad publishing industry as a sort of screening mechanism to filter through the books you should read? Supposing she'd refused trad publishing and continued to be well regarded as a self-pubber?

    I have an agenda in asking this, of course. I'm about to self-pub a historical fiction. No point in pretending otherwise :D

  2. The publisher didn't matter to me, really, but the setting intrigued me, and the positive reviews made me even more curious to read it. I've reviewed some self-pubbed books here before. I doubt it would have been offered on LibraryThing in its original edition, though. I believe LT Early Reviewers is limited to traditional publishers, but I like that system because I get to choose from a variety of titles rather than waiting for offers to come to me. I'm 7 for 7 with my attempts to secure review copies via LibraryThing; fingers crossed it continues!

    That said, and this depends on the book and the reviews I see, but I'm initially wary of self-published novels with a slew of 5-star reviews on Amazon because it may mean the author's family and friends are trying to game the system. This didn't appear to be the case with this book, though, and the fact that a NY pub picked it up later was even more of a positive sign.

  3. Thanks for the enlightenment. I too regularly score review copies on LibraryThing, but almost never on Goodreads. I also monitor NetGalley and, more recently, Edelweiss for eARCs of interesting books.

    I completely agree about the 5-star review thing. Typically when I'm looking at a book I prefer a wide range of responses, from 1 to 5 stars, because that suggests there's something interesting about the book that's getting a reaction out of readers. So as a writer the thought of "bad" reviews is not that worrying. And I just can't respect authors who ask their friends to post 5-star reviews. What worth do they have?

  4. I'm not sure what it takes for Goodreads, either, as I've never received any ARCs that way... but then, I don't have many titles cataloged there. With LibraryThing, I have over 10,000 :) so their matching algorithm works in my favor. I've had luck with NetGalley and find Edelweiss a mixed bag; many publishers are completely new to the system, which can mean lengthy delays for a response. Sometimes weeks to over a month.

    And yes, as a reader I like seeing a range of reactions, too.

  5. Why is a lighthouse always so evocative?

  6. I'm curious too--when you mention Emily's openness and idealism--did you ever feel at any point that modern sensibilities were being imposed by the writer, or was this really true to the character? Not that the period fell short of idealists, mind you, but this does tend to be a common problem with historical fiction.

    That is a gorgeous cover, btw. If this one comes around my library, I may have to borrow a copy.

  7. Shelley, to answer a maybe rhetorical question! I find them evocative too. They're man-made structures, but when juxtaposed against a seascape, they don't feel intrusive. Their history goes back a long way, too.

    Lucy - in some scenes, yes, I did feel Emily's beliefs were too modern. Also, without giving any spoilers, some conversations she had as well as naming conventions in the book were a little odd to me. I liked her a lot as a character, though. The book's told in the form of a memoir written in her old age, and she makes a delightfully tart old lady. I loved the ending.

  8. Sandra Hofsommer5:16 PM

    I just finished reading and reviewing this book for BookBrowse and am absolutely amazed at the 5-star reviews it is getting both there and on Amazon. I simply did not find it beliveable, which is a shame because the author has a wonderful setting--both time and place--and what could have been a terrific character. Where are the discerning readers? Why aren't here more 3's?
    More and more I see reviews telling me that a new book is the best they have ever read. Sorry. I find the best books raise questions and get us to question. The Woman at the Light should have done that.

  9. It would be a shame if we all enjoyed the same books for the same reasons! I don't care for starred ratings myself, although Amazon and Goodreads force you into that. I would've given it a 3 1/2 (but rounded up to 4) because despite the modern mindset and some eyebrow-raising plot twists related to that mindset and to her relationship with Andrew, it held my attention throughout. She's a good storyteller. Is your review on BookBrowse yet? (I looked for it but didn't find it; maybe it's in the works to be posted)

    It's not faring quite as well on LibraryThing, although 3.96 stars isn't too shabby either. Things will even out on Amazon after the novel's published, I suspect. Everything there looks to be based on the earlier edition.

  10. Anonymous11:59 AM

    This sounds like a fascinating historical fiction. Thank you for your review.
    My two cents on the self pub. conversation: I would read it if it were self published, but would be less likely to pick it up on my own without first reading a good review or getting a recommendation from a friend. I love indie authors, but in this era of publishing, there are a lot of books with incredible synopsis' that fall short in the writing.

  11. Sandra Hofsommer3:47 PM

    My BookBrowse review has now been published. While I didn't want to be overly negative, I also believed that the book has been over hyped. I would be interested in what you think after you read the book.

  12. Steph, thanks for commenting, and I agree with you 100%. I love discovering new indie titles but don't have sufficient time to weed through to find the ones worth reading. Reviews and word of mouth are important.

    Sandra, thanks, just found your review. I agree somewhat with your thoughts, although I felt Emily's character did change some over time, first as she adjusted to life on the isolated island and also later, in the second part of the book, as she changed course in order to secure her future (don't want to give spoilers here for those who haven't read it). My review is the post to which all of these comments are attached. I'd be curious to hear other readers' thoughts too.

  13. Sarah,

    Good point about how they somehow don't seem obtrusive.