Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton, a saga about Queen Victoria's royal grandchildren

British and European royalty buffs will revel in this book, in which the lives of Queen Victoria’s large clan of descendants are retold as a sweeping family saga. The action spans from a large gathering at Osborne House, the royal summer retreat, in 1879, through the fall of the Romanovs in 1918.

The principal viewpoints are May of Teck and her cousins Alicky of Hesse and Willy of Prussia—who, in later years, will be known respectively as Queen Mary, Empress Alexandra, and Kaiser Wilhelm. The story imagines that they form a pact that makes them kindred spirits, and the letters they exchange over the years (the women in particular) draw readers into their reflections, hopes, and fears.

Although all the characters are born to great privilege, Pemberton makes them relatable without ignoring their flaws. May, daughter of Victoria’s first cousin, grows up knowing that as a “Serene Highness”—a lesser pedigree than her royal relations—she can never aspire to marry the man she has a crush on: Eddy, the Prince of Wales’s heir. Although embarrassed by her parents’ financial problems, and their need to economize by moving to the Continent, May soaks up culture in Florence and returns to England a well-educated, level-headed young woman. Alicky, a shy, impressionable girl with a mystical bent, finds her soul mate in Nicky, the Romanov heir, but their religious differences seem insurmountable.

The plot emphasizes the personal over the political, with depictions of many courtships and attempted matches, from well-known pairings to the lesser-known and short-lived: like the scandalous second marriage of Alicky’s father, and the sexy affair between May’s brother and Maudie of Wales. Despite some instances of characters sharing facts for the reader’s benefit, it’s an addictive story, and Pemberton gets the relationships correct on their complicated family tree, too.

The Summer Queen was published by Pan this year in paperback. I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review from a personal copy. Margaret Pemberton is a former chair of Britain's Romantic Novelists' Association, and she's written under several pseudonyms. Her best known pen name in America is Rebecca Dean, under which she authored other novels with royal connections, like The Golden Prince (focusing on the young Edward VIII), and The Shadow Queen (about Wallis Simpson).

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

'Tis 50 Years Since: 1969 in historical fiction

The Historical Novel Society's definition of historical fiction includes novels set at least 50 years before the writing, or those written by someone who wasn't alive at the time they were set. If you follow these guidelines, current novels taking place in 1969 are now considered historical fiction. So, for any readers who think the '60s are too recent to be "historical"... well, next year, the 1970s will start getting included under that umbrella (!!).

The final year of the tumultuous 1960s saw a number of iconic events, including Woodstock, the moon landing, the continued Vietnam War, the Manson murders, Chappaquiddick, and the Stonewall riots. It's also the year I was born, so I'm soon to become historical myself. For that reason, I'm especially interested in historical fiction set in '69. These novels re-create the world I was born into but didn't personally experience.

Below are ten historical novels taking place during 1969 (including some published a year ago or more; this is cheating a bit).  I'm looking forward to reading them.

And for further reading:: author Richard Sharp's guest post, The Sixties: The New Frontier in Historical Fiction, is one of my favorite essays on this site. It does a great job of putting in perspective why it's important for authors to continue examining the '60s and writing novels set back then.

America Was Hard to Find by Kathleen Alcott

Alcott covers events of the Cold War era (one plot strand takes place in '69) in her story of a couple, their brief affair, their son, and their involvement in major socio-cultural events. I love the cover design. Ecco, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Adamson's 1969 by Nicole Burton

A young Englishman attends American high school in '69 and gets caught up in many events of the day/year. Apippa, Oct. 2018. [see on Goodreads]

The Girls by Emma Cline

Searching for a place to belong, an impressionable California teenager gets drawn into the world of a dangerous cult during the summer of '69.  Inspired by the Manson murders. Random House, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

The coming-of-age story of a nineteen-year-old woman, recipient of a military scholarship leading to a nursing career, who finds her future in limbo after awakening to the antiwar movement. She Writes, 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Summer of 69 by Elin Hilderbrand

In this book described as the author's first historical novel, Hilderbrand presents the individual stories of the Levin siblings as they live through and experience pivotal events of that summer in Nantucket.  Little, Brown, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Cementville by Paulette Livers

The residents of a small Kentucky factory town face the aftermath of Vietnam when local soldiers' bodies return home, spurring seismic change in Cementville.  Counterpoint, 2014. [see on Goodreads]

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

The NYT bestselling epic of the Vietnam War, written by a decorated veteran who served in combat as a Marine overseas and based his first novel on his own experiences. [see on Goodreads]

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

This top-selling print book for the first half of 2019, taking place in coastal North Carolina in 1969, is a story about a lonely young woman from the marshlands, her coming of age, the era's prejudices, and a mysterious murder. This one has been on my TBR since it came out.  Putnam, 2018. [see on Goodreads]

GodPretty in the Tobacco Field by Kim Michele Richardson

Richardson's second novel takes place in the rural Kentucky mountains in 1969 and traces the coming of age of a young woman with big dreams. Kensington, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Summer of 69 by Todd Strasser

The Woodstock music festival and the Vietnam draft figure in this autobiographical novel that's pitched as taking readers on a "psychedelically tinged trip of a lifetime." Candlewick, 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks, fiction about composer Erik Satie and his family in the Belle Époque

A beautifully melancholic tone permeates this finely written debut novel from acclaimed short story author Horrocks. More than biographical fiction about French avant-garde composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), it’s a multi-perspective saga about the Satie siblings and their circle, and how their lives touched and diverged over decades.

After their father abandons them in 1872, Eric (the original spelling), Louise, and Conrad live with their grandmother in Normandy, until Louise is later sent to stay with her great-uncle. The three never regain their childhood closeness. Now calling himself Erik, the composer pursues music in Paris, and struggles to rise above the cabaret scene, his erratic behavior giving him a “problematic level of fame.” Louise marries into a prominent family yet suffers significant losses.

Erik’s story looks beyond the “tortured genius” stereotype to something more nuanced and real, while both Louise and painter Suzanne Valadon, Erik’s one-time companion, personify different aspects of being a woman alone. The bleakness of the themes of loneliness, family separation, and thwarted expectations sits in counterpoise to several couples’ deep love and the creativity that produces innovative art.

The Vexations was published in August 2019 by Little, Brown; I'd reviewed it for Booklist's July issue. I confess I hadn't run across Erik Satie before picking up the novel and have since read that he's considerably more familiar a name in Europe than in the US. Louise, Erik's sister, is apparently so little-known that she isn't mentioned in Satie's Wikipedia entry; reading it, you'd think Conrad was his only sibling. I found her story the most poignant and was glad to discover it.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The First Mrs. Rothschild by Sara Aharoni, fiction about the matriarch of a Jewish banking dynasty

With her third novel, a prizewinner in Israel, Sara Aharoni illuminates the matriarch of an international banking dynasty, perhaps the most famous in the world. When one thinks of the name Rothschild, visions of immense wealth, financial power, and influence come to mind, but their origins were humble. Aharoni shows how her heroine, a woman of remarkable character, retained her modest lifestyle through her near-century-long life and instilled strong values in her family.

As a female historical-novel protagonist, Gutle Schnapper, nicknamed Gutaleh, is unusual since she’s content, and proud, to be the wife of a great man and the mother of his many children (five sons and five daughters that survived). Conditions in the Judengasse (Jewish quarter) of Frankfurt in 1770 are overcrowded, and its residents, forbidden from full citizenship, face tight restrictions on their movement, behavior, and careers. Meir Amschel Rothschild, well aware of these prejudices, determines to achieve dignity through financial success, and he finally wins Gutaleh’s father’s approval after becoming court banker to Wilhelm, crown prince of Hesse-Kassel.

In a voice that feels true to her culture, Gutaleh evokes her daily joys and laments, including her passionate marriage, her children’s births and deaths, and her periodic concerns (“Is it seemly to have our profits founded in war?” she wonders). While she remains at home in the Judengasse, running a growing household, Meir makes connections on his travels, overcoming countless obstacles while founding a large banking and trade empire.

The sections where Gutaleh shares details on international politics and economics are rather dry, but she’s an insightful observer of her children’s natures, particularly those of her sons. Each son later establishes his own financial institution in a different European city, creating an indomitable family network. Jewish history buffs will want to read this, and so will anyone seeking an original take on 18th- and 19th-century European history.

The First Mrs. Rothschild, translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan, was published by AmazonCrossing in 2019; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the Historical Novels Review.

Did you know August is Women in Translation Month?  This celebration was founded in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski. Use the hashtag #WITMonth to locate other reviews, articles, interviews, and more on international women writers whose books were translated into English.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Interview with Elizabeth Bell, author of Necessary Sins, first in a four-book family saga

Lovers of engrossing family sagas: here's a new historical series to add to your list. Necessary Sins, the first book in Elizabeth Bell's Lazare Family Saga, travels from Saint-Domingue in the French West Indies in the late 18th century to Charleston, South Carolina in the 19th century, with a brief sojourn in Rome. The book's tagline—"In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with doubt, his family's secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner's wife"—reveals the basics of the plot. Joseph Lazare and the woman he comes to love, Tessa Conley, are richly described, complex characters, as are the rest of the cast. They include his level-headed doctor father, René; his mother, Anne, a hearing-impaired woman and devout Catholic; and even Joseph's formidable great-grandmother, Marguerite, whose story is told early on and whose actions affect all of their lives. I read it on a lengthy transatlantic flight, glued to the pages. Thanks to Elizabeth for her willingness to answer some questions in this interview.

The research you undertook during the 26 years of the writing process sounds impressively thorough. What were some of the most enjoyable or unique aspects of the research process?

My fictional family's story begins in Saint-Domingue, the French sugar colony that becomes Haiti. A lot of the information about Saint-Domingue is available only in French. I took seven years of French, but it was getting rusty when I started that part of the story. Then there's 18th-century French and modern French. So I'd say the language barrier was one of the more challenging aspects.

I also researched Catholicism extensively. I attended Masses in Latin, both in a church and in the open air before a Civil War reenactment. I felt like a spy because I wasn't there as a worshipper. My most enjoyable research was on-the-ground, when I toured the Charleston area. During last year's Festival of Houses & Gardens, I got to step inside the private home that sits where my character Tessa's house is located, on the corner of Church Street and Longitude Lane. You buy the ticket months in advance, and you don't know the exact homes you'll visit, so that was surreal: to stand in the place where on some other plane, my characters were arguing and embracing.

Title page of our best first-hand account of
Saint-Domingue (1797), written by a colonist
named Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry.
You’ve written a remarkably complex, multi-layered male protagonist who not only lives in the 19th century, but who’s also of mixed race, as he's shocked to discover, and is destined for the priesthood. How did his character develop over time? Did any of these qualities present more challenges during the writing process than others?

I don't exactly make it easy for myself! My Joseph Lazare was inspired by Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds. But for about the first 15 years of his fictional existence, Joseph was merely a supporting character. My focus was his nephew David and…well, David's generation, because the other two characters would be spoilers. Joseph and Tessa were always in love, but for 15 years, I never let them do anything about it. Theirs was a tragic, unconsummated love that pretty much all the characters knew about, but it was entirely chaste. It's, ahem, become less chaste as I grew into adulthood myself and took a hard look at Catholicism and starting asking "Why?" and "What if?" questions.

Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist,
Charleston, SC (although the congregation existed
in Joseph's day, this structure was completed
much later, in 1907; photo by author)
Catholicism is a gold mine of drama and angst for a fiction writer, and I couldn't let that opportunity go to waste. Since I've never been a boy or a man, writing from Joseph's point-of-view at various stages of his life was its own peculiar challenge. I found myself checking out books from the library on a boy's changing adolescent body! The history of racial identity and categorization is its own mountainous subject area. But I write because I want to learn and understand. I want my characters to be fully realized individuals. By giving them life in all its complexities, I think I expand my own humanity.

At what point did you realize the full story of the Lazares would be a four-book series?

About six months ago! When I began this story, I thought I was writing a single book. I knew it would be a long book, but my inspirations were 900-page epics from the 1980s, so I thought that was fine. Very slowly, I realized my saga would be more like 1500 pages. I decided that I had a trilogy...and then when I actually finished "Book 3," I realized it was over 800 pages. I had to split it again for a total of 4 books. To me, they're all one narrative. The character arcs aren't complete and the story won't be totally satisfying unless the 4 books are read in order. Joseph at the end of Book 1 or even Book 2 is not the fully evolved Joseph.

What impressed you so much about The Thorn Birds that compelled you to write an homage?

I love all that Colleen McCullough accomplishes in The Thorn Birds. The way she captures a time and place I knew nothing about, rural Australia. Her unforgettable characters. Her work holds up to repeat reads, and I get more out of it every time. Most of all, I love how interconnected each generation of her family saga is, how Fee's story echoes through her children and grandchildren. I loved the idea that (SPOILER) the earlier generations screw up and miss their chances at happiness, but eventually the youngest generation is able to break the cycle and find fulfillment. It's not reincarnation, but it's like the family is a single being that's failing and slowly learning and finally growing—the story arc isn't just about a single character's journey but all the family members together. That's so emotionally engaging and satisfying. I guess I find it cathartic, the idea that suffering will eventually lead to transcendence, even if it happens beyond your own lifetime. In Book 2 of my saga, Lost Saints, I have Tessa quote Thomas Paine: "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."

The Thorn Birds also inspired so many questions. As you can probably guess, I was most captivated by the character of Father Ralph. I wanted to understand the choices he made: why he wouldn't leave the Church for Meggie and why he became a celibate priest in the first place. Colleen McCullough gives us glimpses into Ralph's inner struggle, but only glimpses, and we hear very little about his life before he's ordained. I wanted more! I started asking "What if?" and eventually my answers turned into Joseph and Necessary Sins.

Alley of live oaks, Boone Hall Plantation, Charleston, SC (photo by author)

How did you choose South Carolina as the main setting?

When I was eight years old, my parents took me to visit Charleston. I fell in love, and I knew I had to set a story there. The desire simmered until I had a story to tell. I adore the flora and fauna of the Lowcountry, and they became part of my saga. But as a child, I think what appealed to me most was how easy it is to time travel in Charleston. So much of the architecture and narrow streets in the historic district have been lovingly preserved—incredibly, considering the hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes the city has endured.

How were the studies you undertook for your MFA in creative writing beneficial in your writing career?

They definitely made me a better writer. It's essential that a writer read widely and venture outside his or her comfort zone. My literature courses forced me to do that. It's essential that a writer learns to critique others' work, to take criticism, and to make her stories the best versions of themselves. But the most important thing to come out of my MFA degree were the lifelong friendships I forged with classmates. These writers have provided invaluable feedback on my work in the years since we graduated, and they've supported me on this grueling journey to publication.

Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston (photo by author)

I love family sagas that extend over generations and journey to different places, and based on Necessary Sins and the descriptions of the later books, it sounds like you do, too. What appeals to you about writing an epic historical saga?

I love stories I can dive into and inhabit for more than a day or two. I love contrasts and juxtapositions. I love finding surprising connections and echoes. To me, a saga best reflects reality in all its rich beauty, ugliness, and complexity because the writer has a canvas as large as life. However, classic sagas from ancient times to the 20th century are often larger than life and tend toward melodrama. I'm trying to walk that line: a grand scale that captures lost times and places yet is deeply grounded in characters who aren't simply props and symbols. No single individual can express what it means to be human, so the characters are part of a larger whole, but each one is fully rounded and believable. At least that's what I'm striving for. Real life is messier than fiction, so there's artifice involved in telling a satisfying story; but if it's done well, artifice can become art.


Elizabeth Bell has been writing stories since the second grade. At the age of fourteen, she chose a pen name and vowed to become a published author. That same year, she began the Lazare Family Saga. It took her a couple decades to get it right. New generations kept demanding attention, and the story became four epic historical novels. After earning her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, Elizabeth realized she would have to return her two hundred library books. Instead, she cleverly found a job in the university library. She works there to this day.  Visit her website at

Monday, August 12, 2019

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral by Janet Fitch continues Marina M's story during the Russian Civil War

Fitch’s transporting sequel to The Revolution of Marina M. (2017) is even better than the first book. Ceaselessly entertaining through its lengthy page count, it presents a disillusioned, more mature Marina Makarova as she is broken and remade alongside Russia during its civil war.

As the novel opens, 19-year-old Marina, pregnant with her lover’s child, has just escaped from a cult on her family’s former estate. Her journeys take her deep into the Russian countryside and back to her devastated home city. In this full-blooded feminine epic, Marina narrates her dramatic life with striking visual detail, whether she’s riding aboard the agit-train Red October, preparing for the White Army’s advance on Petrograd, or teaching poetry to downtrodden shoe-factory women desperate for a glimpse of beauty.

Enduring near-starvation and terrible poverty and loss, Marina forms strong connections with peasants and the artistic intelligentsia alike, but can’t manage to leave her past behind. “The revolution’s not an event, Marina. It’s a creature,” Maxim Gorky tells her, and Fitch shows her protagonist’s inner turmoil as she and Russian workers awaken to the revolution’s political reality, which is far from what they’d hoped.

Awash with emotion and poetic imagery that aptly reflect Marina’s changing circumstances, Fitch’s tale channels Marina's vibrant spirit throughout. Historical fiction fans should devour this.

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral was published by Little, Brown in July. It's nearly 800 pages but moves fast. I wrote this starred review for the June issue of Booklist. I'd also reviewed the first book in the series back in 2017; together, they make over 1700 pages of epic storytelling, and Marina tells her story in a single narrative thread throughout. For readers who bemoan the idea that authors aren't writing on this type of epic scale anymore: check these two books out!

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Owen Archer Ensemble, a guest post by Candace Robb - plus US giveaway for A Conspiracy of Wolves

I'm happy to welcome Candace Robb here today for a guest post about the supporting cast in her long-running Owen Archer mystery series set in 14th-century York.  The eleventh and newest volume, A Conspiracy of Wolves, was published last week by Severn House/Crème de la Crime in hardcover and ebook.


The Owen Archer Ensemble 
Candace Robb

I approach each scene with a vision of its shape and the characters involved, yet I know it will take on its own form as I write, including unplanned characters who stroll onto the set and make themselves comfortable. A few of these incidental characters not only return in later scenes, but also reappear in future books, becoming members of the series ensemble. Some first appear in a rather minor role—Magda Digby and Brother Michaelo; some are integral to the plot—Alisoun Ffulford.

Magda Digby insinuated herself into an early draft of The Apothecary Rose, her role growing from a cameo appearance—the grieving mother weeping over her son’s grave—to the final version in which she is a minor but notable character. A chance comment from my agent at the time after reading an early draft—an interesting character. Will we see her again?—suggested to me that Magda might warrant another look. That must be what woke her. Gradually, as I revised, she inspired brief scenes; I saw a role for her, and a far richer identity. The elderly woman in mourning expanded into the enigmatic healer Owen encountered on his first day in York and came to respect for her wisdom, healing skill, and long memory about the people of York and Galtres.

Brother Michaelo also made his debut in The Apothecary Rose, as the toady of Archdeacon Anselm. In Rose he was a pathetic creature frequenting the infirmary at St. Mary’s with headaches. When he failed in his task for Anselm his role seemed finished. But much to my surprise, Archbishop Thoresby took him on as his private secretary in The Lady Chapel, as his “hair shirt.” In Thoresby’s service Michaelo came to see the error of his ways and sought redemption—though on his own terms. His all too human struggles endeared him to me, and Michaelo became a character I enjoyed following.

But with Thoresby’s death in A Vigil of Spies, and the failure of Richard Ravenser’s bid to take his uncle’s place as archbishop, Michaelo’s role in the series was over. Or so I thought. But something odd kept happening as I wrote Owen’s first scenes in A Conspiracy of Wolves—Brother Michaelo kept appearing, appalled by the crime scene, yet proving unexpectedly helpful. I would edit him out only to have him reappear. I thought he’d returned to Normandy between books 10 and 11, but I was wrong.

Alisoun Ffulford was a central character in The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, a child orphaned by the pestilence, unwittingly caught up in a series of crimes. Hostile toward Owen Archer and Magda Digby when they came to rescue her, she tried to strike out on her own in a countryside terrified by the plague. She intrigued me, and her character, a stubborn child who hunted with a bow and distrusted everyone, oddly lightened the plague-haunted story. I found I could not let her go once I’d finished the book. I wanted to explore whether she would convince Magda to take her on as an apprentice, and, if so, how that would play out. By book 10, A Vigil of Spies, Alisoun matured and gained not only Magda’s but also Owen’s respect. However, she stumbled in A Conspiracy of Wolves, and that is how she’s managing to keep my interest.


About the Author

I’m Candace Robb, a writer/historian engaged in creating fiction about the late middle ages with a large cast of characters with whom I enjoy spending my days. Two series, the Owen Archer mysteries and the Kate Clifford mysteries, are set in late medieval York. The Margaret Kerr trilogy is set in early 14th century Scotland, at the beginning of the Wars of Independence. Two standalone novels (published under pseudonym Emma Campion) expand on the lives of two women in the court of King Edward III who have fascinated me ever since I first encountered them in history and fiction.

I am a dreamer. Writing, gardening, walking, dancing, reading, being with friends—there’s always a dreaming element.

About A Conspiracy of Wolves (Owen Archer, Book 11):

When a prominent citizen is murdered, former Captain of the Guard Owen Archer is persuaded out of retirement to investigate in this gripping medieval mystery.

1374. When a member of one of York’s most prominent families is found dead in the woods, his throat torn out, rumours spread like wildfire that wolves are running loose throughout the city. Persuaded to investigate by the victim’s father, Owen Archer is convinced that a human killer is responsible. But before he can gather sufficient evidence to prove his case, a second body is discovered, stabbed to death. Is there a connection? What secrets are contained within the victim’s household? And what does apprentice healer Alisoun know that she’s not telling?

Teaming up with Geoffrey Chaucer, who is in York on a secret mission on behalf of Prince Edward, Owen’s enquiries will draw him headlong into a deadly conspiracy.


During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a hardcover copy of A Conspiracy of Wolves by Candace Robb! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on August 15th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
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– Only one entry per household.
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– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

Conspiracy of Wolves

Monday, August 05, 2019

Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn begins a stylish mystery series set in 1920s Manhattan

With her debut novel, Marlowe Benn gives us a pair of family stories intertwined with a twisting mystery garbed in stylish language. The setting is Jazz Age Manhattan; while socialites party their way across the city, and suffragists relish the victory of the 19th Amendment, progressive women know more work needs to be done.

Into this buzzing atmosphere arrives Julia Kydd, an independent young woman who has returned home from a five-year stay in London to receive her inheritance on her 25th birthday. However, her half-brother Philip has put up an unexpected challenge to their late father’s bequest, which sets them at odds. It’s an awkward situation at best. They barely know one another, and Julia’s obliged to lodge with him since he still controls her funds.

While crossing the Atlantic, Julia had gotten reacquainted with a boarding-school chum, Glennis Rankin, whose own family woes are deepening. Glennis’s much-older sister, Naomi, has been found dead in her basement apartment, an apparent suicide, but there’s much that’s suspicious about her untimely passing. Apart from Naomi and Glennis, the Rankins are a ghastly, judgmental bunch – their pompous brother Chester criticizes Naomi in his eulogy – which prompts Glennis, confused and furious, to lean on Julia for support. Thus Julia is drawn into her friend’s personal drama, and she has added motive for doing so after Philip makes her an offer she can’t refuse: if she can prove Naomi was murdered, he’ll stop contesting her inheritance.

This bargain sounds contrived, and some readers may not be convinced otherwise, but knowing more about the context makes it feel less so. Philip is an enigmatic fellow who isn’t the greedy villain one may expect. A literary, urbane sort who’s fascinated by psychology and has solved “puzzlers” for the police, he seems to be testing Julia.

Julia herself is another character whose personality deepens over time. A modern 1920s woman who has a British lover but values her independence too much to marry, she saves her greatest passion for her aspiring career as a literary publisher. (It’s an interest that Marlowe Benn shares, and aficionados of fine bindings, colophons, and fonts will soak up the details.) Julia also discovers one irony: the freedom she loves depends on money. Without it, her choices are marriage or poverty: the same restrictive options faced by so many of the era’s women.

The standout character, however, is Naomi, a woman with many layers. Would that we could meet her in person, but then there’d be no mystery. Naomi was a devoted suffragist, to her family's dismay, and she may have been in a “Boston marriage” with the colleague, Alice, who shared her dreary basement flat in the family mansion. Naomi had been forced to live there in the first place because of a terrible choice her rich brother forced her into. While it’s possible she killed herself in despair at her circumstances, it wouldn’t be like Naomi to give up. It’s not in Julia’s nature, either.

Benn has a sure hand with sizing up people in words: “Vivian Winterjay stood across the room in a spotlight of wary silence, mustering one of those small, composed smiles meant to carry one through any occasion—the bare-knuckle refuge of impeccable breeding,” she writes of Naomi’s married sister. And the era as well; Julia notes Glennis’s shock at Naomi’s passing as follows: “Six years since death’s long romp across Europe, and still young people everywhere were caught short by its caprice.” The ending offers plenty of revelations in character and plot, and leaves opportunity for the enterprising Julia to appear in future books (hopefully with company, too).

Relative Fortunes was published by Amazon's Lake Union imprint on August 1st; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Embracing life: Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls, set in the theater world of mid-20th century Manhattan

The heroine of Gilbert’s bold, zesty historical novel couldn’t be more different from The Signature of All Things’ intellectual Alma Whittaker, but the books share worthy themes, like the importance of embracing life and women’s self-acceptance. Attractive and rich, Vivian Morris gets kicked out of Vassar in 1940 for never attending class. Her despairing, distant parents send her to live in Manhattan with her aunt Peg, co-proprietress of the Lily Playhouse, a shabby venue that stages middling productions for the area’s working-class denizens.

Finding a home among the performers and crew, Vivian dives headlong into the theater world. A gorgeous showgirl named Celia draws Vivian into her habits of late-night carousing, smoking, drinking, and sleeping with attractive men—lots of them. Before that, though, Vivian must shed her unwanted virginity, and that scene is hilarious in its cringe-worthy awkwardness.

When one of Peg’s old chums, British actress Edna Parker Watson, arrives in town with her handsome-but-dumb thespian husband, Peg feels she must stage a production deserving of Edna’s talents. This leads (with many people’s help, including Vivian’s as costume designer) to the creation of a musical called City of Girls, a show described in such entertaining detail that readers will want to buy tickets. Vivian continues to fling herself into her hedonistic lifestyle regardless of consequences—until there are, in fact, awful consequences that shape her later life.

Aged 95, Vivian writes her life story for a woman named Angela, whose father she once knew, and whose identity is satisfyingly revealed toward the end. While these constant reminders (“…from that moment, on, Angela”) can be intrusive, the older Vivian’s voice contributes perspective and hard-won wisdom. Steeped in Manhattan theater glamour during WWII and after, City of Girls zips along throughout, wearing its research lightly as it showcases its cast of unabashedly liberated women during Vivian’s coming of age.

City of Girls was published by Riverhead in June; I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. Gilbert's The Signature of All Things is reviewed here.