Halfway to Heaven
Halfway to Heaven is a book I’ll not soon forget, not only because it was a good book, but because of the circumstances under which I read it. I read it during a time of national tragedy, when I was stuck in another state, without my family. When I couldn’t watch the news anymore, I took refuge in this book, which took me away to a different world, and a simpler one.
Abigail Cabot, daughter of a US senator, has one real passion in her life – astronomy. Though she emerges from her home for important political events, for the most part she is content to sit in the shadows, avoiding the notice of others. She has a beautiful older sister, Helena, who enjoys flouting convention and easily catches the eye of every man she meets, including the man Abigail has secretly loved from afar for years, Lieutenant Boyd Butler, son of the vice-president. When Abigail dances with Boyd at a wedding, she also catches the eye of Jamie Calhoun, a young congressman from Virginia. He can’t help noticing how different she is, and when Helena offers to find him lodging with their next-door neighbor, he accepts.
Soon after Jamie moves in, he finds out that Boyd has written a love letter – not to Abigail, but to Helena. Helena has no gift for words, so she asks Abigail to write her reply. Abigail writes two replies; one is a polite note encouraging the courtship, and the other is a heartfelt letter pouring out her feelings. When Jamie finds the latter letter and posts it for Abigail, she is furious with him. His motives for doing it are not entirely clear. He definitely has political goals and would benefit from an alliance with Abigail’s father, but he also seems to want to help Abigail come out of her shell and become the beautiful woman that he knows she can be.
Jamie begins helping Abigail, taking her to a prominent dressmaker, teaching her to dance, even showing her how to kiss. It’s all in the name of helping her land Boyd, who continues to write to Helena (and receive responses from Abigail). But while Jamie and Abigail spend all this time together, they are forming a bond neither of them expected. Jamie understands and appreciates Abigail’s love for the stars, which isn’t just a casual hobby to her. Abigail comes to appreciate the powerful motivations that drive Jamie and shape his political goals. But although they are growing closer together, both will need to stop denying their feelings before they can focus on each other, and each still has family issues that need to be resolved as well.
This is a book with a lot going for it. I deeply enjoyed these characters. Neither of them is perfect, thank goodness. Abigail is stubborn and often afraid to take on the world, or even defy her father. She’s flawed physically as well, with a disfigured foot that she hides from nearly everyone. The scene in which Jamie discovers her disability is quite touching. Her fascination with astronomy and her loving relationship with her sister, who is very different from her, also add a lot to her character.
Jamie is similarly likable, especially if you like the Rhett Butler type (which I do). Heroes with a treacherous secret are a dime a dozen, but Jamie manages to stand out. When he begins his connection with Abigail, he thinks he is motivated entirely by his political self-interest. It’s obvious to the reader that there is more to it, and when you come down to it the reasons for his political career are very altruistic. I liked the way he dealt with Abigail. They share many conversations, and the reader comes to know that they are falling in love long before they understand it themselves.
I also really appreciated the Washington D.C. setting and the political nature of the plot. This type of American historical can be quite hard to find, and although the author is deliberately vague with the timeline, there are some nice details about growing up in a political family. I would like to have seen still more detail, however. I know Wiggs was trying to avoid all mention of party politics (there was of course, no real-life Lieutenant Butler with a vice president father), but I would have preferred to know exactly when she intended the book to be set. It also would have lent much more realism if someone, anyone, had asked Jamie if he had connections to the famous South Carolina senator, John C. Calhoun. Though that Calhoun would have been dead by the time of this book, everyone in nineteenth century America would have heard of him, and the fact that no one mentioned it made no sense. The fictional Jamie Calhoun would be roughly equivalent to a young congressmen today with the last name of Kennedy – people would want to know how that congressman was related to JFK or Robert.
Those niggles aside, this book is a good solid read, and one of the better American Historicals I have read this year. The author leaves some tantalizing hints about the future of Abigail’s sister Helena, who will get her own book next year. I’ll be looking forward to that book, and I encourage readers to try this one.