In LaVyrle Spencer’s The Endearment, newly-orphaned Anna Reardon arrives in Minnesota to marry a farmer called Karl Lindstrom. She saw his advertisement for a wife, and they’ve been corresponding since then. But Karl is in for a number of nasty surprises, and as a reader, I was cringing on his behalf. Why? Well, let me count the ways.
When Karl sees Anna, he realizes that although she told him she was twenty-five, she’s actually much younger. She turns out to be seventeen. Then he discovers she brought her thirteen-year-old brother James with her. Anna’s letters never mentioned James, and Karl quickly discovers that the boy hasn’t been within miles of a farm, so he won’t be much help, at least not at first. Growing suspicious, Karl asks Anna if she can cook and keep house and take care of a garden, as her letters assured him she could. The answers are no, no and no, respectively.
Karl seeks spiritual guidance from the priest, who advises him to forgive Anna. So he does, asking only if she told him any more lies. She says she didn’t. So the wedding can go ahead – except it turns out she lied about being a Catholic. Karl, by now more a martyr than anyone in the stained-glass windows, marries her anyway, only to find that her letters were actually penned by James, because Anna can’t even write her own name in the registry.
And the unkindest cut of all is still to come. Anna isn’t a virgin, but she doesn’t tell Karl. To avoid the inevitable discovery, she claims to have her period so he’ll leave her alone for a few days. For his part, Karl is patient with her, and he’s devastated when he realizes the truth.
The start of the book is painful. Karl is kind, hardworking and lonely, so to watch him being disillusioned at each step of the way was difficult to read. Not only that, he’s humiliated when these revelations occur in the presence of others. Yet he takes Anna and James into his house, which he’s made as welcoming as possible for his new bride, and he tries to make the best of matters. It was quite sad, though, how he kept thinking of Anna before she arrived, and telling his friends about her. I wished he’d found a better another wife.
That said, Anna does have reasons for both her ineptitude and her lying. She and James were born to a prostitute who was, at best, indifferent to them, and they grew up in a brothel. After their mother’s death, the only way out seemed to be the advertisement James saw in the paper. Except Karl only sent enough money for Anna’s fare, so she went to one of her mother’s customers who’d shown an interest in her, and he paid her enough to take James with her.
Unfortunately, none of this is revealed until later in the story, and what comes first is Anna’s litany of lies. She also gets defensive when she’s called on them, as if she had a leg to stand on. I would have liked her if she’d been honest with Karl. Yes, at the start she’s terrified that he’ll send her packing, but what about later, after they’re married and start trusting each other, but before they sleep together? It also doesn’t help that at the start, Anna has nothing to bring to the table, so to speak. Most heroines of historical romances, especially those who don’t grow up in luxury, are more capable than Anna is.
That said, around the two-thirds mark, I started to enjoy the story. Coincidentally, this is when Anna tells Karl the complete truth about herself, so at least that unpleasantness was finally over. It takes them the rest of the book to deal with the fallout, but I warmed up to Anna and the romance closes on a sweet note that’s typical of the best of Ms. Spencer’s work. I also like the brotherly relationship that develops between Karl and James.
Another plus point is the charm and authenticity of the setting. I was fascinated by the taste of cedar chips, cold water from the springhouse, and pillows filled with cattail down. This is a vivid and well-written book. Readers who find Anna more – er – endearing than I did might like The Endearment. For me, though, the warmth of the ending didn’t make up for the extremely rocky start, and I can’t quite recommend it.