The Nightingale's Song
The Nightingale’s Song is author Kathleen Eschenburg’s debut book, and as debuts go it is quite encouraging. Taken as a whole, though, it’s no more than average; the pacing is off, especially in the first half of the book, and the hero and heroine engage in some aggravating behavior towards the end. Still, there are some interesting historical insights, and parts of the plot are very engrossing.
Orphan Mary Margaret (Maggie) Quinn left her home in Ireland when she was but twelve and arrived in America in 1860. She went to live with family friend Father Fitzhugh at a Catholic orphanage in Baltimore. Fourteen years later she’s still there, now as a teacher. She’s planning to become a nun, and she’s very attached to one particular pupil named Clara.
Clara’s father suddenly shows up at the orphanage. His name is Gordon Kincaid, and he’s a wealthy Virginian who has only just discovered the existence of his daughter. He has a previous acquaintance with Mother Bernadette, who runs the orphanage, but she’s not sure that Gordon would make a suitable father to young Clara. He stays in Baltimore for a couple of weeks, trying to win over Mother Bernadette, Clara, and the elusive Maggie. When he takes Maggie and Clara to a racing party as his guests, a jealous woman publicly humiliates Maggie with cruel lies. Gordon decides that the only way to save Maggie and her reputation is to marry her.
When he takes Maggie back to Virginia, she finds herself in a very difficult situation. As a Irish Catholic, she is not exactly welcome in Gordon’s social circles. He has a young son from a previous marriage who is not eager to have his mother replaced, and a brusque older brother who is worried about the health of his pregnant wife. The political climate is also extremely volatile, and Gordon’s habit of providing medical assistance to former slaves is not looked upon with a kind eye. Amidst this backdrop, Maggie must figure out what her true feelings are in regard to Gordon.
With a musically talented, governess heroine who is planning to become a nun and a ex-military, widower hero, The Nightingale’s Song does tend to bring The Sound of Music to mind. But while a couple of Maggie’s conversations with Mother Bernadette did almost have me humming “Climb Every Mountain,” the resemblance is mostly superficial. Gordon, thankfully, has two children rather than seven, and neither of them runs through the streets of Baltimore in clothes made from curtains. Once the story moves to Virginia, the tone is much darker, so I forgot all visions of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.
There was much that intrigued me about this book. I chose it in the first place because the post-war South is a favorite setting of mine, and author Eschenburg does a pretty good job of capturing the complexities of the Reconstruction Era. There are occasional anachronisms ( I highly doubt that orphanages of the time worried about children “bonding to caregivers”) but for the most part society is portrayed in a realistic way. Gordon and his brother Royce are from the planter aristocracy, but though they are former slave owners they refuse to fall in step with the local KKK. Neither man particularly wants to be a hero, and both of them have to weigh their principles against the danger they are causing their families. This is by far the most interesting plotline in the book. Eschenburg adds another layer to this plot by comparing society in Reconstruction Virginia to society in Maggie’s Irish homeland. It’s a nice, sophisticated touch.
The characters are not the type you can fall for immediately, but their complexity does grow on you. Maggie fears early on that she is falling for Gordon, but she actually thinks like a woman of her time. She is more than a little shocked when Gordon tries to take some “liberties,” and when she is contemplating marriage to him she really weighs her soul in the balance. She worries that by marrying a man outside her faith, she is risking damnation. While this situation is resolved somewhat easily in the end, I found it refreshing that she actually took her faith seriously.
Since this is such a thought-provoking book, I really wish I could recommend it. Unfortunately, it has a severe pacing problem. The last third of the book is where everything interesting happens, but the reader must plow through the first two thirds to get there. It was definitely uphill work for me; it took me the better part of a week of determined slogging. As I was reading, I kept thinking that the hero and heroine would have been interesting if they’d only been doing something. Instead they go on boring outings and think repetitive thoughts. None of the nuns are compelling, and the children are more or less interchangeable. Far too much time is spent setting up the “real” plot. The contrast became all too apparent to me when Gordon and Maggie arrived in Virginia. Suddenly we see interesting secondary characters, complex themes, and real action. Suddenly I could hardly put the book down.
Despite the average grade this book received, I think this author is one to watch. The pacing problem seems like a rookie mistake to me, one I hope the author will overcome in time. There is also definite sequel potential here. Gordon’s brother Royce and his wife are already happily married when we meet them, but there is so much detail about their romance and so much thought behind their characters that it almost sounds like Eschenburg wrote a whole book about them already. If it ever shows up, I’ll read it. As for this particular book, it’s a tough call. The Nightingale’s Song has tons of potential, but if I hadn’t been reading it for review I might not persevered long enough to discover that.