In 1871, the city of Chicago burned to the ground in a catastrophe that was rumored to have been started by a cow belonging to Mrs. O’Leary. The Mistress, an exciting and original romance by Susan Wiggs, takes place during that fire and features Mrs. O’Leary’s daughter, Kathleen, as the heroine.
Kathleen is a poor Irish girl who has always longed for a life of wealth and luxury. Working as a ladies’ maid she has had plenty of opportunity to see how the other half lives, and one night she and some friends plan a dangerous prank. They dress Kathleen up in her mistress’ clothes and jewels, and attend a party to which only Chicago’s social elite are invited.
At the party Kathleen is dazzled by the handsomest, richest, most eligible bachelor in Chicago, Dylan Kennedy. When fire sweeps through the city, Dylan and Kathleen flee through the burning streets, hand-in-hand, and find themselves trapped in the courthouse along with a priest. In love with Dylan already, Kathleen agrees to his impulsive proposal. Fully expecting to die within hours, they are married right there.
But they don’t die, and in the ashes they find an incredibly romantic setting in which to consummate their marriage. Not only is Kathleen in love, she is thrilled with the idea that she has managed to marry into the life of luxury she’s always coveted. She just has to find a way to tell Dylan her teeny little secret – that she’s an immigrant’s daughter, and the diamonds she’s wearing aren’t hers. Little does Kathleen know that Dylan has a secret, too. Far from the gentleman he pretends to be, Dylan is a penniless con artist who also believes that he just married money. In the morning after the fire, nothing is as it once seemed.
This book has a knockout setting. The chapters in which Kathleen and Dylan run through the fire, unable to find shelter, are the among the most powerful and exciting scenes I have read in any romance. The fire destroys the city’s grandeur, and it destroys the pretenses of our characters as well. In the aftermath, Wiggs shows us how the city, and our characters, are devastated by the fire – and how both discover opportunities for rebirth and growth.
Kathleen is intelligent and funny and flawed. She is deeply moral but undeniably greedy, not for money but for a wealthy lifestyle. Unlike many characters with secrets, Kathleen not only regrets her deception but pays for it and then tries to fix it. Fans of complex, ambiguous heroes will love Dylan, an injured, immoral soul to whom deceit has become a way of life. I liked the fact that Wiggs does not shy away from portraying both of these characters as Roman Catholics rather than just giving them a sort of vague nondenominational spirituality. Both Kathleen and Dylan, in their different ways, regard their actions as sins. It deepens their characters and accurately fits in with the historical setting, too.
In my mind, I found myself comparing this book’s hero to Harry Bainbridge the hero of Lorraine Heath’s Never Love a Cowboy. Both Dylan and Harry are deeply wounded men who believe themselves unworthy of love. Harry changes because he undergoes an ordeal that would profoundly change anyone. Dylan changes, too, but I found his change a little less convincing because nothing, aside from the love of Kathleen, seems to prompt it. This is my only real problem with The Mistress – the hero’s redemption seems to come a little too easily to him, considering what he’s been through.
I confidently recommend this book to anyone who loves romance, excitement, interesting characters, and a fascinating setting. The Mistress is a well-crafted, intelligent romance, and every page displays the high quality I’ve come to expect from this consistently good author.