When I first saw the title Nell, I pictured the wild-child title character from the Jodie Foster movie, and I was sure I would never get that mental picture out of my head. About fifty pages into the book, I had lost that mental picture entirely. I was so engrossed in the storyline that I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Nell is a fascinating story, and a different one. There are really four main characters, and two settings. The timeline veers back and forth between sixteenth century Ireland and contemporary Ireland. The changes are quick and abrupt at first, then the story settles in for a longer time in each time period. Not every author could pull off this kind of complicated story, but Baker manages to do it with considerable aplomb.
The story begins in Northern Ireland in 1972 with the young Jillian Fitzgerald. Jillian rescues her dog from a trap and takes him to the family kennel. Frankie Maguire, the collier's son, helps her to save the dog, and a friendship begins. Even at that young age, they are attracted to each other. Over the years their friendship grows, but Frankie understands why any long term relationship is impossible. Jillian is part of the Protestant nobility, while he is a Catholic servant. In war-torn Northern Ireland, their relationship will never have a chance. When Jillian and Frankie are teenagers, a tragedy occurs, and they are separated. Neither of them can forget the other, but they don't know if they will ever see one another again.
Jillian has one odd thing about her. She has a friend, Nell, whom only she can see and hear. Her family thinks Nell is an imaginary friend, but Jillian knows otherwise. Nell appears to her often during her childhood, particularly when Jillian is in trouble. But while Jillian is in college, Nell appears and asks for her help. The tables are now turned, and Jillian goes back in time to aid Nell.
Up until this point, Nell's story has been unfolding in tandem with Jillian's. Nell Fitzgerald has only one love - Donal O'Flaherty. Her father has signed betrothal papers, and she can hardly wait until Donal makes her his bride. But tragedy strikes when King Henry VIII has most of Nell's family executed. While Nell is trying to save her only remaining brother, she is separated from Donal. In order to keep her brother alive, Nell must negotiate in the complex and treacherous world of Tudor politics. She needs Jillian's help to guide her if she has any hope of remaining alive to meet her true love.
Nell gets her happy ending, and then the story shifts back to present day Ireland. The story of Frankie and Jillian resumes, and a happy ending for them seems almost impossible. Frankie is the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, and Jillian is working for the British government. They are still worlds apart, but this is romance, and we know eventually they too will get their happy end.
Nell is an ambitious story that attempts much, and succeeds beautifully. The characters in both time periods are fully-fleshed and wonderful. I don't know how Jeanette Baker managed to breathe life into so many characters in a four hundred page book, but she did. I fell in love with all four main characters, and could have read four hundred more pages without losing interest.
Both settings feature riveting political conflicts that really add to the book. The contrast of Tudor and present-day Irish politics is fascinating. The similarities are startling. It is worth noting that there are a lot of political details in this book. If you're not a political junkie, or your knowledge of either time period is limited, you may find it hard to keep up at times. There are also a few Gaelic phrases that are never quite explained, but readers should be able to catch the general drift.
There is one point in the present day when the main characters' actions don't seem quite believable. But this is a very minor quibble which can be freely overlooked. Nell is a wonderful book, one which pulls off a very ambitious agenda. I think almost anyone would enjoy it, but I especially recommend it to fans of Diana Gabaldon. While it doesn't have quite the length and scope of a Gabaldon opus, it have a similar flavor. It can be a long wait between Gabaldon fixes, and a great book like Nell can help ease the craving.
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