What a feast for the mind! Stephanie Marie Thornton has previously brought real-life heroines as different as Alice Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy to life in her novels. In Her Lost Words, she does perfect credit to the worlds of seminal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, science fiction novelist Mary Godwin-Shelley.
We learn immediately about what a rough life Mary Wollstonecraft had – the horrors of child abuse marked her early, and the sight of her mother being abused by her father helped shape her own beliefs about free love and open marriages. She believes in political revolution, and literally sneaks into France to watch a rebellion in progress. But she still yearns for romance.
Her daughter, meanwhile, is filled with passionate longing for the brooding but dramatic Percy Bysshe Shelley. She becomes caught up in his dramatic world, running away with her half-sister only to fall into the arms of Byronic debauchery. Amid creditors, horrible disasters and the loss of many children, she begins to carve out a literary history for herself, and finds herself reckoning with her mother’s ghost.
The narrative perfectly balances the story of mother and daughter, with Mary learning about the mother she never knew through autobiographical entries and her published works. Mary forges her own happiness through sheer determination, and has to battle everything from Percy’s impracticality to the morality of the world around them. Ultimately, she finds solace in art, and in her surviving child.
There’s a lot of beauty to be had here, as well as many dark times, and in terms of the prose, here isn’t a single misstep. While I found Thornton’s take on Alice Roosevelt inferior to other fictional versions of her, this is a flawless novel, and astonishingly good. Each heartbreak is dealt with minus melodrama, and each dramatic moment handled with intelligent sincerity.
The ouroboros of love - and of sadness – that links Mary to her mother is one anyone with a connection to their mother can relate to. This is an excellent take on both women’s lives. Pick up Her Lost Words. You will not regret it.
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