A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

The combination of cheap and “sounds intriguing” has lured me into buying many a book. And since I’m fairly dangerous in used bookstores, I have a massive TBR pile. So, when prompted to pick out a book by a new-to-me author, my dilemma was something along the lines of which new-to-me author to liberate from the stack. I’ve heard good things about Jennifer Donnelly’s books over the years.  I wasn’t quite in the mood to tackle a giant doorstopper of a book this month, so I skipped over The Tea Rose and picked up her 2003 young adult novel, A Northern Light, instead.

From the cover blurb, I was uncertain whether to expect YA romance or historical fiction. I think this haunting coming-of-age novel is more properly classified as historical fiction and while I did find it hard reading at times, I loved the story. Set in the Adirondacks in 1906, this story is set against a famous real-life murder which also formed the backdrop for Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel, An American Tragedy.

The heroine, Mattie Gokey, works as a maid at the Glenmore, a resort at Big Moose Lake. Hotel guest Grace Brown asked Mattie to burn a packet of letters, but when Brown is later found drowned in the lake, Mattie cannot bring herself to destroy the letters.  As Mattie deals with her feelings about Grace’s drowning and she begins to read the letters, we start to see Mattie’s recent life through flashbacks. Not surprisingly, Grace’s life and dreams and all of the dreams Mattie has for her own life start to mix together in Mattie’s mind and before long, she has some major decisions to make.

When I said before that this book could be hard to read, I do not allude to graphic content so much as the pervasive claustrophobia that set in as I read this story. Mattie is obviously very intelligent and not only that, she has both a respect and hunger for learning. With a teacher determined to help her find a place in a women’s college, Mattie chases after learning with a devotion many modern students likely would not recognize. However, as the eldest daughter of a widowed farmer who just barely scrapes by, Mattie’s world is constricted.

Not only must Mattie care for her numerous younger siblings, but she also takes on the lion’s share of running the house. The brother closest in age to Mattie ran off after an altercation with their father, so there is no one left to help with much of the farmwork as well. Mattie’s father still grieves the loss of his wife and often expresses his emotions in bursts of temper which seem particularly harsh now that the farm isn’t doing well. School and learning are the main bright lights in Mattie’s life, but in rural upstate New York, she does not seem to have many opportunities aside from hard work and scarce resources.

The story grows more interesting as Mattie has two paths open before her. On the one hand, the son of a neighboring farmer seems interested in her. While her future might be at least a little more secure than what she faces at home and she would have the love of her family, Royal Loomis still represents a life of hard work and few chances to expand her mind. On the other hand, Mattie just might have a chance to go to New York City and attend college. This is a choice that opens the world the Mattie but getting her father’s consent – or the support of just about anyone close to her – may prove almost impossible.

One of the things that makes this story so compelling is that Donnelly explores each of Mattie’s options. Neither seems like a sure thing early on in the story, and Mattie really does have to do some soul-searching to figure out who she is and what is important to her. The juxtaposition of that journey against the fate of Grace Brown losing her life just as she seemed to be on the edge of realizing her dreams gives this book more than average depth.

The ending of the book seemed to wrap things up just a bit too quickly and felt just a bit too pat.  But only just a bit. Overall I still greatly enjoyed this novel and would definitely recommend it.

Grade:  B+                                                            Sensuality: Kisses

– Lynn Spencer

 

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The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan

Although I’ve been aware of Patricia Veryan for a number of years, up until recently, her books were out of print and the only way to obtain them was to find rather tatty second-hand paperbacks. Fortunately, many of her novels have now been made available digitally, meaning that I was able to make her my “new to me author” for February’s TBR Challenge prompt.

I’ve often seen her work likened to Georgette Heyer’s, and although I think that Heyer fans are likely to enjoy Ms. Veryan’s books, they are quite different in certain essentials.  For one thing, almost all Ms. Heyer’s stories are set during the Regency, while only around a third of Ms. Veryan’s are; most of her books are set more than fifty years earlier in the Georgian era.  In fact, the cover of the (1984) paperback edition of The Wagered Widow proudly proclaims it to be A Regency Romance, whereas it’s actually set almost seventy years before the Regency, in 1746, just a year after the Battle of Culloden.  And for another, her books usually have a political element; Ms. Veryan’s series of romantic adventures – The Tales of the Jewelled Men, The Golden Chronicles and the Sanguinet Saga (which is set during the Regency) all use the Jacobite rebellion and Battle of Culloden as important plot points and feature characters who are in some way connected with both events.

The Wagered Widow is a standalone book that also works as a prequel to The Golden Chronicles, which I definitely intend to read now they’re all available as ebooks.  It tells the story of a lively young woman who has just finished her year of mourning for her late husband – who has left her in impecunious circumstances and with a six year old son to look after.  Rebecca Parrish is petite, lovely, vivacious and well aware of her tendency towards hoydenish behaviour.  She is also aware that, if she is to secure a well-to-do second husband who will be able to keep her and Anthony more than comfortably, she is going to have to tone down her liveliness a little and be a little more demure; after all, no man wants a wife who could be labelled ‘fast’.

When she makes the acquaintance of Sir Peter Ward, a wealthy gentleman who also happens to be extremely handsome and not too much older than she is, Rebecca thinks she has found the solution to her problems.  She knows it’s mercenary of her, but she has her son and his future to think of, and she decides to fix Sir Peter’s interest and secure an offer of marriage from him.  It’s true that he’s rather reserved and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but he’s kind and attentive and Rebecca knows she could do a lot worse than wed a man who will care for and look after her, even if there is no great passion or love between them.  The problem is that his friend, the darkly attractive Trevelyan de Villars knows exactly what Rebecca is about, and takes every opportunity he can to tease her about it.  De Villars has the blackest reputation and is widely known to be a rake of the first order, something Rebecca won’t let him forget.  His wickedly humorous, flirtatious teasing is often very funny; she devises various epithets for him in her head – The Brute, The Lascivious Libertine, The Wicked Lecher…  he infuriates her,  she amuses him and the sparks fly.

The plotline might not be very original, but it’s well-executed, with lots of humour and fun dialogue, an entertaining secondary cast (especially the foppish Sir Graham Fortescue who is definitely more than he seems) and a touch of drama in the later stages.  The way that Rebecca very gradually comes to see just which of the two gentlemen is the right one for her is nicely done;  we watch her slowly shedding her prejudices about de Villars at the same time as he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his coolly cynical persona around her, and the few scenes in which he interacts with Rebecca’s son, who very shrewdly notes that “… his eyes say different to his words”  – are utterly charming.  The couple doesn’t progress past a few kisses on the page, but there’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them, and it’s clear by the end that these two people who are passionately in love.

The writing is witty and spry and makes use of expressions and idioms that feel authentic, and there is plenty of detail about the fashions, décor and customs of the day, so those of us who like a bit of history in our historical romance certainly won’t be disappointed.  But one of the things I was most pleasantly surprised about in this book was the characterisation.  In some of the older romance novels I’ve read, it’s sometimes fairly thin, but that is most definitely not the case here.  Rebecca is a fully-rounded character who own up to her flaws and while Trevelyan is perhaps not quite so well-developed, his feelings and motivations are easy for the reader to discern and through them, we get a clearer picture of the real man beneath the outer layer of world-weary ennui.

The Wagered Widow is a light-hearted, frothy read overall, and is firmly rooted in the time in which it is set by the addition of the secondary plotline that revolves around the continuing search for Jacobite fugitives.  I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more of Ms. Veryan’s work.

Grade: B               Sensuality: Kisses

– Caz Owens

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