A Marriage Bureau Mystery

The Right Sort of Man      Allison Montclair     (2019)

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In the wake of World War II, women who had taken on substantial roles in the war effort were often expected to walk away from stimulating, remunerative work to become housewives. Recently, a number of nonfiction titles, novels, and films have been exploring the ramifications of this cultural shift. For example, in the PBS series The Bletchley Circle a cast of brilliant (fictional) female codebreakers become freelance detectives, solving murders after the war. On this blog I’ve reviewed several novels treating the issue of women adjusting to wartime and to the post-war economy and society; see links at the end of this post.

In the novel The Right Sort of Man, Iris Sparks can’t reveal her wartime work because of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but she clearly was a spy for the Allies. The story starts in 1946, and Iris reveals her chops through her contacts in high places, her sharp intellect, and her ability to wield a knife against an aggressor. She has met Gwen Bainbridge, a wealthy widow who was so devastated by the loss of her husband in the war that she was confined for several months to a mental institution and lost custody of her young son. Iris and Gwen decide to become partners in establishing a marriage bureau—Iris to have gainful employment as a single woman, and Gwen to reclaim her place in the world. The services they offer are in demand as Britons return to civilian life and seek the comforts of home and family.

Alas, after only a few months of operation, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau loses one of its female clients to murder, and a man whom the bureau has matched her with is charged with the crime. Iris and Gwen have vetted their clients thoroughly and are convinced that the wrong person has been arrested. To see justice done and save the reputation of their firm, they set out to find the real perpetrator. In the course of their investigation, they run into black market gangs finding ways around Britain’s strict war-related rationing laws, which were not fully phased out until 1954.

The action moves forward and the personalities develop primarily through dialogue, and that dialogue is quick-witted, reflecting Iris and Gwen’s intelligence and perceptiveness.  These two women have Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction as well as skills in subterfuge and in the discernment of the truthfulness of those they are interviewing. Some complex sub-plotting centers on Iris’s sex life, which is, to use Gwen’s descriptor, “adventurous.”

Who is the novelist? Allison Montclair is a pseudonym for an experienced fiction writer who’s venturing into the mystery genre with The Right Sort of Man. It’s a highly successful venture, capturing the immediate post-war period in London and unveiling the lives of two women who survived and thrived.

For other excellent fictional treatments of women’s roles in Britain in World War II and afterwards, see my reviews of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries (2003-present) and of Anthony Quinn’s Freya (2017). On the American side of the Atlantic, check out Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (2017), and for women in post-war Germany see Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle (2017).

A Mystery in Luxuriant Marshland

Where the Crawdads Sing     Delia Owens     (2018)

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Mix together some of Barbara Kingsolver’s nature writing, a bit of Pat Conroy’s insights into the American South, and a good chunk of any police procedural mystery, and you’ll get an approximation of Where the Crawdads Sing. Oh, and add some coming-of-age self-realization, too.

Kya Clark is the Marsh Girl, whom we meet in August of 1952, when her mother walks away from her family’s isolated shack, deserting her children to escape an abusive alcoholic husband. Kya is six years old at the time, and already amazingly independent  in the lush woodlands and waterways of the North Carolina coast. She’s a born naturalist (instructed a little by an older brother who departs early in the story) and possesses artistic abilities inherited from her mother, who was a painter.

Within a few years, Kya’s violent and unreliable father disappears also, and she’s left on her own in the wilderness, with no funds and no schooling. Her survival might seem to stretch credibility, but in Delia Owens’s portrayal, Kya’s life among the gulls and fireflies and mussels is almost idyllic. Indeed, the many passages describing the landscape and its denizens are worthy of Aldo Leopold: “Clouds lazed in the folded arms of the hills, then billowed up and drifted away. Some tendrils twisted into tight spirals and traced the warmer ravines, behaving like mist tracking the dank fens of the marsh.” (192)

Owens introduces several characters to assist Kya in her solitude. An African American man who runs a gas station in the marshland exchanges Kya’s ocean catches for gas for her boat. His wife provides Kya with cast-off clothing. A budding young biologist from town who fishes in the marsh teaches her to read and brings her books. Trouble arrives, however, with another young man, Chase Andrews, who is determined to seduce her.

You’ll figure out early on that Kya will be a suspect in the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews. The courtroom scenes in which Kya is tried mark a shift in the tone of the book, from the dreamy, romantic marshscape to the harsh reality of criminal prosecution and defense. This wasn’t a narrative discontinuity for me but rather indicative of Kya’s distress in being separated from her beloved wilderness for her trial in town.

Kya’s estangement from most other human beings keeps her in a state of credulous immaturity even when she’s in her twenties, so the coming-of-age component of the novel has unusual twists. “[Kya] knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.” (363)

Where the Crawdads Sing has been on many bestseller lists and is being adapted into a movie by Reese Witherspoon. It’s a tale well-suited for the big screen, but I suspect that even if the adaptation is good, the book will still be better.

Among My Faves: Mystery Series

Once I find a mystery series I like, I read every installment that’s published. The characters in the series become my friends, whom I want to check in on, whose life adventures I want to follow.

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I’ve profiled a number of these series already on this blog. In the medieval mystery sub-category, my favorite is Ellis Peters’s classic Brother Cadfael Series, centered on a monastery in 12th-century Shrewsbury, England. In 21 books published between 1977 and 1994, Peters developed the brilliant and compassionate character Cadfael, with excellent historic authenticity.

Among authors of contemporary mystery series, Alexander McCall Smith stands in a category of prolificacy all his own. I’ve reviewed his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, set in Botswana (1998-present) and his Isabel Dalhousie Series, set in Edinburgh (2004-present).  Both series feature female detectives who investigate primarily non-violent crimes. These novels are definitely not thrillers!

Other mystery series that I’ve reviewed in the past are listed at the end of this post. Here are some new reviews:

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The Marco Didius Falco Mystery Series and the sequel Flavia Albia Mystery Series by Lindsey Davis (1989-present). 

Falco is a private investigator of thoroughly modern sensibilities who lives in the first-century Roman Empire. By the time he retires after 20 books, his adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is ready to move into detective work. Many of the novels in these two series take place up and down the seven hills of Rome, but the remarkable mobility of Roman citizens allows the author to set a number of the tales in far-flung provinces of the empire.

Early on, the plebian Falco acquires a patrician girlfriend, Helena Justina, the daughter of a Roman senator. Falco also has an old Army buddy, Lucius Petronius Longus, and a large extended family who figure prominently. The books are best read in sequence, so that you can keep track of the interpersonal relationships that evolve over several decades. Start with Silver Pigs (also published as The Silver Pigs).

The stories are complex, fast-paced, satirical, and outrageously funny. I love how the characters curse, as in this bit from The Third Nero (2017): “Perella exploded with exasperation. ‘Venus and her golden girdle! I can’t leave them alone for a moment without the idle barmpots getting in a twist.’” And I love how Davis portrays the Roman bureaucracy that Falco has to wade through as he takes on assignments from various emperors. People wonder how the Roman Empire can be managed so successfully. As any scribe would tell you, this is how. Emperors may come and go, bringing more or less chaos, but the bureaucrats keep the wheels turning.”

If you know a little Latin and a little Roman history, you’ll catch a few more of the jokes, but you definitely don’t need a degree in classics to appreciate this series. If you’re familiar with I, Claudius (the 1934 novel by Robert Graves adapted into a 1976 BBC television series), you’ll recognize Davis’s flagrantly anachronistic technique of transposing modern British social constructs to the ancient world.

I grab every one of these books the minute they hit the library shelves.

The Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Series by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2002-2013, possibly ongoing)

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For several years now, fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming have been waiting breathlessly for the next installment in this contemporary mystery series, set in upstate New York.

The character Clare Fergusson served as a combat helicopter pilot in the Army but finds her true vocation as an Episcopal priest. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief in the small town in which Clare arrives to minister to a faltering congregation. Clare is in bad shape emotionally from her military service; Russ, who is also a veteran, has his own demons. The electricity between these two is crackling from their very first meeting. And did I mention that Russ is married?

I confess that the crimes that occur in the Clare/Russ Series are not the main attraction for me. There are violent scenes that I have to glide past, particularly when they involve fresh human blood on snow banks. I’ve read this series primarily for the interactions of Clare and Russ and for the Episcopal humor. I laughed out loud when Russ came to discuss a case privately with Clare late one spring evening and was shocked to find the church filled with worshipers attending an Easter Vigil service. The non-believer Russ has to learn a lot about Christian customs and has to accept that Clare is going to intervene in his murder cases when she feels a moral obligation to do so. Clare, who is a Southerner, has to get used to both the snowbound winters and hidebound mindsets of rural New York State.

Spencer-Fleming uses dialogue extensively in building her characters, and the dialogue in the Clare/Russ Series is snappy and authentic. The setting is depicted generously and with elegant detail, helping readers feel the biting cold winds of a blizzard, the treacherous slippage of tires on ice-slicked roads. Indeed, the first novel in the series is In the Bleak Midwinter, taking its title from a Christmas carol. Subsequent books are also titled with lines from various hymns, all beloved by Episcopalians.

Be sure to read the eight novels in the series in order, and maybe send Spencer-Fleming a Facebook message, encouraging her to get going on the ninth installment.

& & & & &

My reviews of medieval mystery series:

My reviews of other historical mysteries set in Britain:

My reviews of contemporary mystery series:

My reviews of standalone mystery novels are too numerous to list, but you can click on “Mysteries” in the right-hand column to scroll through them all.

Wheeler-Dealers in Old Amsterdam

The Coffee Trader     David Liss     (2003)

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Dutch burghers of the 17th century had original paintings by the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer hanging on the walls of their solid, comfortable houses. For me, this is reason enough to gravitate toward fiction set in Holland in this period, and indeed novels such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), based on the Vermeer masterpiece of the same name, have transported readers into that milieu very effectively.

In The Coffee Trader, novelist David Liss demonstrates that Dutch baroque-era burghers were not only patrons of the arts and archetypes of bourgeois life but also innovators in the establishment of modern commodity markets, with a version of Wall Street trading that was remarkably sophisticated—and treacherous. At the Exchange in Amsterdam, “Some traders came to fill orders or to sell what their ships brought into port, but increasingly men bought calls and puts and futures, trading in goods they never sought to own and would never see. It was the new way of doing things, turning the Exchange into a great gaming pit where outcome was determined not by chance but by the needs of the markets around the world.” (90)

The fictional intrepid trader of the book’s title is Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew who has settled in 1659 Amsterdam after fleeing from the Iberian Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, the internationalism of the Dutch business community made Holland one of the few places in the world where Jews could practice their faith without persecution. The downside of this religious freedom was that Jews in Amsterdam created self-imposed restrictions on their community, in order to assure the gentile Dutch that Jews would not be an economic drain or a cultural threat. A Jewish council called the Ma’amad could impose career-ending sanctions on local Jews, and this is one of the key tensions of the novel.

Miguel is surrounded by vividly depicted secondary characters, including the mysterious Dutch widow Geertruid Damhuis; the impoverished Dutch trader Joachim Waagener; the ostracized Jewish moneylender Alonzo Alferonda; Miguel’s pedantic brother, Daniel; and Daniel’s longsuffering wife, Hannah. Percolating through the narrative, however, is the inanimate character of coffee, which was just beginning to be appreciated in Europe for its pick-me-up qualities: “Hannah . . . loved the way it made her feel animated and alive. It was not as though she discovered a new self, rather, coffee reordered the self she already had. Things at the top sank to the bottom, and the parts of herself she had chained down rose buoyantly. She had forgotten to be demure and modest, and she loved casting off those constraints.” (201)

As Miguel coordinates a risky scheme involving coffee futures, the novelist presents business transactions of dizzying complexity. Some of the financial shenanigans zipped right past me, but I’m not complaining, since I could then focus on satisfying sub-plots involving a nefarious servant, an enigmatic sidekick, and an unhappy marriage.

Immerse yourself in the world of The Night Watch and the Zuiderzee with The Coffee Trader, and if you crave more 17th-century Holland, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

More Than a Mystery

The Other Americans     Laila Lalami     (2019)

Exactly who are “the other Americans” in Laila Lalami’s novel of that title? She introduces multiple narrators, each of whom could be categorized as “other.”

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  • Driss, a Moroccan immigrant who runs a diner, is a ghostly presence in many ways. On the first page he dies in a late-night hit-and-run accident, yet we get his back story piecemeal in chapters throughout the book.

  • Efraín, a Mexican doing landscaping in this California desert town, witnesses the accident but is afraid to come forward because of his undocumented status. We follow his crisis of conscience over many weeks.

  • Anderson, a prime suspect in the accident case, is an elderly white guy who runs the bowling alley next door to Driss’s diner. He sees himself as ostracized in a corporatized and increasingly diverse society.

  • Nora, Driss’s adult daughter, is convinced that her father was not killed accidentally but murdered, and she pushes the police to dig deeper into the evidence. As a musician, she finds some acceptance in the jazz community, despite her brown skin.

  • Coleman, an African American police detective, is assigned to the accident case. She’s smart and savvy, but she struggles at home in raising her teen stepson.

  • Jeremy, another police officer, is a veteran of the Iraq War who clearly suffers from PTSD. Early in the novel he becomes Nora’s boyfriend, and their relationship anchors a significant sub-plot.

The list of characters goes on, and Lalami integrates the disparate narrative perspectives smoothly as she disentangles the mystery of Driss’s death. All her characters (even Anderson in his way) are outsiders, with personal histories that define them in opposition to the people around them. A sense of otherness can arise from many sources, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration status, woundedness, or occupation.

Although the ensemble cast of The Other Americans is very large, the characters are fully fleshed out, with distinct voices. I really wanted Lalami to broaden each of their stories, although I know that this would have cluttered the novel and distracted from the main plot. She does provide a brief and tantalizing wrapup of the hit-and-run accident, several years out, from Nora’s point of view.

I got to know these Americans; I sympathized with many of them and wished them well. Good novels do that to a reader.

Two Breezy Beach Reads

For your summer reading pleasure, here are two novels set adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean.

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A Hundred Summers     Beatriz Williams     (2013)

Beatriz Williams spins an old-school romance with the more explicit sex scenes of contemporary literature and comes up with a frothy confection of a chick-lit novel.

The story is set in Depression-era America, with chapters alternating between 1931 and 1938. In 1931, the sensible and lovely Lily Dane (student at Smith) meets the smart and handsome Nick Greenwald (student at Dartmouth) at a college football game. Although Nick gets his leg broken in that game, the two fall in love. Alas, the impediment to their lifelong happiness seems to be that Nick’s father is Jewish.

In the summer of 1938, the characters reunite at the fictional Seaview, Rhode Island, an oceanside retreat for the privileged few who are relatively unaffected by the 1929 economic crash. Lily’s best friend, the fashionable and reckless Budgie Byrne, is now married to Nick, while Lily is single, serving as a kind of nanny to her six-year-old sister, Kiki. Graham Pendleton, once a lover of Budgie’s, pursues Lily, who still pines for Nick.

Conundrums swirl. Why in the world would Nick have married Budgie, when they’re obviously unsuited to each other? Is Kiki really Lily’s sister or is she Lily and Nick’s love child? What’s going on with the Greenwald family business? What does Lily’s wacky and yet wise Aunt Julie know? How can these people drink so much alcohol and still stand on two feet? It all comes together with hurricane force in the final chapters, and an epilogue takes the story out to 1944.

Williams’ dialogue is sprightly and her plot moves right along, so even if you find that the characters verge on the stereotypical, I think you’ll enjoy this novel as you lounge on the sand under a summer sun. 

A Dangerous Collaboration     Deanna Raybourn     (2019)

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If your beach-read tastes lean more toward classic mysteries, this fourth installment in the Veronica Speedwell Series might serve. I dipped into A Dangerous Collaboration without having read the previous novels, and I figured out the background pretty quickly.

Veronica is a lepidopterist and sleuth who is shockingly independent and sexually liberated for the year 1888 in Britain. Stoker Templeton-Vane plays opposite her as her love interest and partner in detection. He’s a trained physician, which comes in handy, and a hunk who would not be out of place in a bodice-ripper romance. Veronica and Stoker stoke up their unconsummated attraction to each other with slick banter as they try to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a bride on an island off the Cornish coast.

Much of the plot is typical of English house-party murder mysteries, with Gothic elements impishly pointed out by the author’s choice of a character name invoking Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 Dracula. You’ll encounter a castle with secret tunnels and hidey holes galore, a garden of poisonous plants, a spooky séance, and an array of suspects that includes family members, household staff, and local villagers. The denouement is suitably sensational and watery, though the reader is pretty sure that Veronica and Stoker will survive and solve the mystery.

And there are even fictional rare butterflies!

Happy surfing!

 

Coming of Age in the New Ireland

Normal People     Sally Rooney     (2018)

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As we grow older, each of us carries memories from the years that we’ve lived through. Some of us also carry wisdom gained from reflection on our past actions. And a few of us can dissect the decisions and motivations of decades gone by.

Irish novelist Sally Rooney, who is in her late twenties, has an uncanny understanding of contemporary men and women in their late teens who are navigating relationships, developing their own worldviews in perilous times, wrestling with their demons, and exploring the directions that their talents might take them. She explores the emotions of emerging adulthood with exquisite sensitivity and nuance in Normal People, her second novel, following on the highly successful Conversations with Friends from 2017.

In 2011, Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in a small town in County Sligo, in the rural west of Ireland. Connell’s mother, a loving but impoverished single parent, works as a housecleaner for the wealthy Sheridans. Connell and Marianne, the two brightest students at the local secondary school, are drawn to each other. He’s a popular athlete, with several good friends. She’s a loner with a miserable home life. This being the New Ireland (not the Old Ireland of hidebound Catholicism), plenty of sex scenes ensue, handled with great care by the author, though still sometimes cringe-worthy. Connell and Marianne keep their liaison secret, each for different reasons.

When the pair head off to attend Trinity College, their roles are somewhat reversed. Connell struggles to adjust as a “culchie” (a country bumpkin) in the cosmopolitan Dublin, whereas Marianne, freed from her nasty mother and brother, slides right into a smart social set. Over a period of four years, they break up, get back together, break up again . . . and readers are pulled one way and another.

The plot is not especially original, but Rooney exploits it deftly to probe the thoughts of Connell and Marianne as they grow toward adulthood. Despite their different family situations, they hold much in common, including exceptional intelligence, proficiency in the academic enterprise, interest in global politics, and basic loneliness. 

Connell muses: “Marianne had a wildness that got into him for a while and made him feel that he was like her, that they had the same unnameable spiritual injury, and that neither of them could ever fit into the world. But he was never damaged like she was. She just made him feel that way.” (175)

Marianne illuminates the title of the novel in a scene late in the book: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people. Her voice sounds oddly cool and distant, like a recording of her voice played after she herself has gone away or departed from somewhere else. In what way? he says. I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.” (187)  (The lack of punctuation is Rooney’s—a feature that I accepted despite its irritation factor.)

As if laying bare all aspects of adolescent angst isn’t enough, Rooney also manages some good digs at literary pretentiousness. Here’s Connell considering an author event  he’s just attended in Dublin: “He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured.  . . .It was culture as a class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.” (228)

Sally Rooney nails it with this insightful and intense book. 

 

Coming of Age in the North Woods

Winter Loon     Susan Bernhard     (2019)

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The loon, a large migratory aquatic bird, can be spotted in the far northern reaches of Minnesota,  Wisconsin, and Michigan (and up into Canada) only in the height of summer. The cry of a loon echoing across a lake is haunting and unforgettable, emblematic of long days in the North Woods. But if you spot a loon in these parts in the winter, the bird is probably injured and is unlikely to survive.

Wes Ballot, the teenage first-person narrator of this novel, is perhaps like a winter loon in rural Minnesota—disoriented, separated from his family, facing grim odds for survival. On the very first page, Wes’s mother falls through the ice of a semi-frozen Minnesota lake and drowns, just out of the reach of Wes’s outstretched arm. If you’re a reader who, like me, has a hard time with fictional death scenes, you may waver in committing to the story, but I’d encourage you to read on, as the path of Wes’s life winds twistingly toward adulthood.

When Wes’s father deserts him, supposedly to find work, Wes is left to live with his insensitive maternal grandparents. A local Native American family is sympathetic toward him, and Wes is smitten with a member of this clan, Jolene, who’s also had a tough life.  “She smiled at me then, a funny, crooked, closed-mouth sideways smile that I would later try to imitate in the mirror. It was like she could see something in me that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to try on that expression so I could know it, too.” (98)

Although Wes has plenty of setbacks, he keeps seeking to learn the facts about his troubled parents, particularly on classic road trips through the American West. “I tried to organize my thoughts, but the miles I’d traveled logged in my veins and I could feel the tire treads rumbling the marrow like I was still driving.” (279)

Some of the people Wes Ballot meets are selfish and cruel. Well, no, a lot of the people he meets are selfish and cruel, and sadly, many teens around the globe find this to be the case. But a few people are generous and kind. Wes doesn’t give up looking for the people who will affirm his worth.

 

California Dreamin'

The Golden State     Lydia Kiesling    (2018)

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Daphne, the first-person narrator and main character in this novel, is the mother of a sixteen-month-old girl nicknamed Honey. She’s also the wife of Engin, who was wrongly deported to his native Turkey eight months before the story begins. And she’s an administrator at the fictional university-based Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations in San Francisco.

After a devastating incident at the Institute, Daphne is at the end of her rope on both the career and parenting fronts. She packs up Honey and heads to a remote rural area in northern California, to a small house that she’s inherited. The people she meets there include a 92-year-old woman on a personal quest and a group of libertarians who want the region to secede from the state of California. Tapping into unreliable internet connections, Daphne sends email excuses to her boss back in San Francisco and phones her husband in Turkey, all the while trying to figure out what path she wants to take for the rest of her life.

Novelist Lydia Kiesling pokes at and deflates a number of contemporary cultural beliefs in this candid novel.

  • The total bliss of early motherhood? Jab. Daphne feeds Honey, diapers her, reads to her, bathes her, kisses her, soothes her when she falls on her face, and straps her into car seats and strollers as she strenuously resists being strapped in. The sentences in which these activities appear are often lengthy and lacking punctuation. With this writing technique, Kiesling is conveying the unremitting and often overwhelming demands of child care.

  • The purity of purpose at major universities? Jab. A sample: “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but is the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms, the creation of scheduling Doodles, the collection of receipts and the phoning of caterers, the issuing of letters and the ordering of supplies and the tallying of points in poorly formatted spreadsheets.” (38)

  • The basic fairness of American immigration enforcement? Jab.

  • The universal good-heartedness of rural Americans? Jab.

  • The excellence of off-the-beaten-path diners? Jab.

The “golden state” of the title clearly refers to California, and Kiesling provides lovely scenes of areas in California that seldom appear in fiction. But it’s also possible that this title is obliquely referring to the representation of motherhood as golden, or of our American political system as golden. Check it out, through the eyes of Daphne.

 

 

Bonus Post: Aging Gracefully

Women Rowing North:  Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age    Mary Pipher     (2019)

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Mary Pipher is the perceptive psychologist who burst through cultural expectations in 1994 to bring us Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which examined the effects of societal pressures on young women in America. For this book, Pipher drew on case studies and on her own experiences as a therapist and as the mother of a teenage girl.

Twenty-five years later, Pipher, now aged 71, explores what it is to be an aging woman—specifically, a woman in her sixties or seventies. Women Rowing North is a warm-hearted and encouraging guidebook. Using the overarching image of a boat trip on a river, she divides her narrative into four sections:

  • Challenges of the Journey—addressing the loss of confidence that can come with illness, loneliness, or changes in physical appearance.

  • Travel Skills—with specific advice on “building a good day” and “creating community.”

  • The People on the Boat—expanding the view to the friends, relatives, life partners, and grandchildren of older women.

  • The Northern Lights—focusing on how older women can find their authentic selves as they approach the end of their lives.

Throughout, Pipher illustrates her points with vignettes about actual women whom she interviewed: businesswomen and homemakers, the long-married and the single, the straight and the gay, women of color and white women, middle-class women and women living on the edge of poverty. I found these miniature stories illuminating and reassuring, and I gravitated to them when Pipher occasionally strung together a few too many aphorisms in the rest of the text.

I was also drawn to passages in which Pipher discusses the “sense for deep time and inter-connectedness“ (232) that we often cannot fully experience until we are far advanced in age. Here’s a sample of her reflections: “When we look back, we can see generations of mothers and fathers who managed to take care of their children. We can see our ancestors working in peat fields, drumming around fires, fishing in faraway seas, or traveling by sled through fierce northern winters. We can see the Indian encampments of the Great Plains, the immigration or slave ships, and the grandparents walking west from the big East Coast cities. . . We are adrift on a little boat rocked in the river of time, part of a long line of women who have lived in caves, swum in rivers, and foraged for food.” (205)

I don’t read many self-help books, and I’ve never reviewed one on this blog before, but for Mary Pipher I’ve made an exception. She rows toward the north with peacefulness and power.  

Retirement in Pittsburgh? Don't Yawn!

Henry, Himself     Stewart O’Nan     (2019)

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Stewart O’Nan offers no rootin’ tootin’ action in this novel, no daring heroes, no grisly violence. Henry, Himself is a quiet, introspective portrait of a year in the life of Henry Maxwell, a retired engineer in his 70s who lives in Pittsburgh. If you’re already yawning, stop that for a moment and read this review.  

Somehow, novelist O’Nan is able to turn everyday events into drama that drives his narrative in a highly effective way. I haven’t yet figured out how he does this. It could be the naturalistic dialogue. Henry’s conversations with his wife of nearly fifty years, Emily, can be hilarious. The two have well-worn phrases that they toss back and forth, parrying each other’s comments. 

Maybe the novel works because the hundreds of minor quotidian events are enlivened by actions beyond the edges of the main story, such as the troubled marriage of Margaret, Henry and Emily’s alcoholic daughter.  

It’s also possible that I see my own life in O’Nan’s prose because I’m in the same age range as Henry and Emily. But O’Nan is a decade younger, so I don’t know how he’s able to depict the attitudes and approaches of the elderly so astutely. He’s simply a fine novelist.  

So, what exactly does the character Henry do? He may be retired, but he certainly keeps busy every day, well beyond walking the dog. At his basement workbench he re-glues a kitchen drawer because he can’t afford new cabinets. He makes innumerable trips to his local Home Depot store to buy supplies for his fix-it projects, and in his home office he keeps meticulous records of household expenses. Despite his multiple health challenges (which he manages with an array of prescription medications), he golfs with his old pals, trading barbs in camaraderie. Henry’s beloved wife Emily is always in the picture also, and he takes pains to please her with dinner dates for Valentine’s Day and Mothers’ Day. The two of them escape Pittsburgh in the summer for Chautauqua, New York, where they meet up with their children and grandchildren at their lakefront house.  

In the midst of these ordinary activities, Henry mentally retraces significant events of his past—a passionate but doomed youthful love affair, his searing combat experience in World War II, his fulfilling career in aeronautics. His companionable marriage to Emily anchors him even as he is baffled by the animosity between Emily and the wife of their son. The unhappy life of daughter Margaret comes to Henry’s mind frequently, as he assesses whether he has failed her as a father. He muses, ”Late in life, after his mother had died, his father cried at baptisms and funerals and sappy movies on TV, age stripping away a final protective layer. Now Henry could feel the same softening taking place inside him, a helpless grief for the past and boundless pity for the world, and that was right too. No fool like an old fool.” (72)

You can get more of the Maxwell family in two other O’Nan novels that I also highly recommend:  Wish You Were Here (published 2002) and Emily, Alone (published 2011). Both are set after Henry, Himself, which makes Henry, Himself a prequel. I can also vouch for two stand-alone O’Nan novels that probe interpersonal relations in a warmhearted way: Last Night at the Lobster and The Odds. Be aware, however, that O’Nan has also written terrifying thrillers that I have stayed far away from!

For other novels about Rust Belt places like Pittsburgh, check out Anne Tyler (Baltimore), Richard Russo (upstate New York), and Leif Enger (northern Minnesota). For other introspective novels, try Kent Haruf or James Wood or Bernard MacLaverty. You can click the links for my reviews.

Miracles in MN and ND

Peace Like a River     Leif Enger     (2001)

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Most of the religions of the world have in their histories or traditions the working of miracles, perhaps because humans want to believe that the usual unrelenting laws of the universe can sometimes be subverted. Peace Like a River is a book about miracles, but novelist Leif Enger doesn’t proselytize. Right up front, on page 3, his narrator, Reuben Land, writes, “Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”

Reuben is an eleven-year-old asthmatic boy living in rural Minnesota with his younger sister (Swede), his older brother (Davy), and his father (Jeremiah, the one who performs the miracles) in the year 1962. After their small town’s two bullies engage in an escalating series of episodes of battering and vandalism, Davy strikes back and ends up in jail. When Davy’s trial seems to be going against him, he escapes, managing to evade both officers of the law and a civilian posse. His family sets off to find him, figuring that he might be hiding out in the rugged Badlands of the neighboring state of North Dakota. The family encounters several distinctive characters on their quest, and the story—after taking turns toward love, fear, hope, and loss—builds to a shocking conclusion.

This forward-driving narrative line alone would be sufficient to keep the interest of many readers, but Enger adds much more. Jeremiah’s miracles, some of which might be odd coincidences, appear when they’re least expected, as the family’s road trip to the Badlands takes on qualities of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Reuben is an unpretentious first-person storyteller who inspires reader confidence in his truthfulness, and his version of 1962 is accurate without feeling forced. His language can be rich: “Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.” (54) He frequently includes galloping verse, based on the lore of the Old West, which he presents as written by Swede, who is unusual in both her name and her precocity.

I sought out Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s debut novel, after placing his most recent offering, Virgil Wander, on my Favorite Reads of 2018 list. Enger’s prose style has developed in seventeen years, but his writing was already powerful in 2001, and if you’re familiar with the Upper Midwest, you may feel an extra zing. For the record, you don’t  have to believe in miracles to love this novel.

A Cautionary Novel about Cults

Little Faith     Nickolas Butler     (2019)

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In the title to this blog post, I don’t use the word “cult” lightly. I use it to mean a group professing a religious belief that they claim provides exclusive access to salvation. But this alone would not distinguish a cult from many mainstream religious groups. Cults often have arcane rules about conduct of life—rules that can be secretive. In addition, a cult demands absolute obedience to a leader, usually a charismatic man, and urges total allegiance to the group, alienating members from family and indeed from the greater society. The risk of exploitation of members by the cult’s leader is high.

I’ve noticed that the media don’t much use the term “cult” lately, rather giving these groups the benefit of the doubt as “new sects” or “alternative religious movements.” I was raised in the 1960s in a religious splinter group that fell short of being a cult but that could also have been given one of these more benign labels. I see a distinct tipping point between “new sect” and “cult”: When a member’s fervent adherence to the group leads the member to perform destructive (including self-destructive) acts that are widely recognized by civil society as unacceptable or even criminal, to me that group is clearly a cult.

Now, to get the novel at hand, Little Faith. In present-day rural Wisconsin, a retired couple, Lyle and Peg Hovde, are delighted when their long-estranged adult daughter, Shiloh, comes to live with them again. Shiloh brings with her Isaac, her five-year-old son. The Hovdes don’t ask about Isaac’s father; they’re just reveling in their newfound grandparenthood. And Isaac is a bright, sweet child.

The knot of this novel, however, arises when we find that Shiloh has become a member of a cult. True, Shiloh calls the group that she joins her “church,” but it has all the hallmarks of a cult. Lyle and Peg try to be respectful of Shiloh’s beliefs, not the least because they’re desperate to have good relationships with their only child and only grandchild. But the deceptive and damaging aspects of Shiloh’s beliefs become more and more apparent as the story wends through the seasons of a year. Lyle’s own struggles with religious belief weave in and out of the narrative.

Nickolas Butler’s prose is straightforward but occasionally lyrical, his characters are beautifully developed, and his plot is achingly tragic. I challenge any reader of Little Faith not to weep at the ending of the novel, which I will not spoil with a full revelation of the plot. An Author’s Note tells us that part of the story is based on an actual 2008 incident in Wisconsin, where Butler lives. Thus, Little Faith becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremist, authoritarian groups that entrap needy souls in the name of religion.

Click here for my review of another of Nickolas Butler’s novels, The Hearts of Men.

A Riverside Mystery

Once upon a River     Diane Setterfield     (2018)

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The river of the title is the Thames, meandering its way through southern England toward London and the sea. It’s a waterway freighted with history, mystery, and folklore. Diane Setterfield calls upon all these qualities of the Thames in this mystical, magical novel.

On a blustery night at the winter solstice, in an unnamed year in the nineteenth century, some inveterate storytellers are drinking at an inn called The Swan in a town called Radcot (an actual place in West Oxfordshire). Bursting in at the door comes a badly injured man carrying what seems to be a floppy doll. The man turns out to be a photographer whose boat crashed at a weir upstream. The doll turns out to be a young girl, about four years of age, who is at first thought to be dead but then revives at the hands of the local nurse/midwife, who is called to the scene.

The basis of the book is revealed in the first few chapters, but the unraveling of the tale takes 400 more pages. Who is the little girl? She does not speak, so she cannot reveal any information. Does she belong to the photographer? Is she the daughter of a local landowner—a child kidnapped two years previously and never found? Is she the sister of the parson’s housekeeper, a fearful woman with many reasons to be twitchy? Is she the step-granddaughter of a mixed-race farmer who lives nearby?   

The narrative snakes back and forth among these possibilities, much like the flow of the River Thames, with language that evokes folk legend or fairy tale, though grounded in daily life. In keeping with this tone, the characters are drawn with broad strokes. The farmer is a most upright and kindly man; the nurse is highly skilled and compassionate. As foils, the evil characters at the fringes of the novel are truly nasty. For example, the farmer’s stepson is unrepentant as he pursues various unethical and criminal activities in the face of unrelenting kindness from the farmer.    

Novelist Setterfield keeps coming back to those storytelling tipplers at The Swan. Their speculations about the strange little girl, and their embroideries upon the events of that winter solstice night, are like the Facebook posts of their era. As a year of seasons advances, most of the plot and sub-plot components are ultimately resolved, but readers are left with some of the same uncertainties that the storytellers at the inn have.  

It’s a cracking good tale.

Cozy Mysteries in Maine

The Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries     Lea Wait    (2015-present)

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I’ve recently dipped into this popular American cozy mystery series. In the initial book, Twisted Threads, we learn that the first-person narrator, Angie Curtis, was raised in Maine by her grandmother (“Gram”) after the disappearance of Angie’s mother. When the mother’s body is found after 17 years, 27-year-old Angie heads back to Maine from Arizona, where she’s been working as an assistant to a private detective. Angie’s skills come in handy with the investigation into her mother’s death and other mysteries in the small Maine tourist town of Haven Harbor. After these are solved, Angie agrees to stay on for six months to help Gram run her home-based business, Mainely Needlepoint, which produces high-end custom pillows, chair covers, and wall hangings.

Of course, in subsequent books in the series, other crimes in Haven Harbor bubble to the surface for Angie to tackle. She finds herself pretty happy to be back in Maine with her delightful Gram, the eccentric cast of needle crafters who work for Mainely Needlepoint, and potential romantic partners.

The dialogue in these novels is realistic, and the plots move quickly, resolving in the final few pages, though I did detect signs of haste in the writing. The setting on the coast of Maine comes to life with descriptions of ocean views and luscious seafood. I guessed some of the perpetrators of crimes early on, but I liked learning more about Angie as she weighs whether to stay on in her native Maine or return to the sunny Southwest.

You can read the books in any order, but chronologically works best. The series titles are

Twisted Threads (2015)

Threads of Evidence (2015)

Thread and Gone (2015)

Dangling by a Thread (2016)

Tightening the Threads (2017)

Thread the Halls (2017)

Thread Herrings (2018)

Thread on Arrival (2019)

For other cozy mysteries, see my reviews of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels (also here).

Graham Norton’s Holding is another great cozy, reviewed here.

Surviving Exploitation

Before We Were Yours      Lisa Wingate     (2017)

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When children are exploited and abused by adults, the response of most people is to recoil in horror and call for criminal prosecution. This has occurred with Jewish children in the Holocaust, indigenous children in Canadian schools, children abused by Roman Catholic priests, and Central American children in the detention centers at the southern border of the United States.  

One documented case of severe and widespread child abuse that has not received much attention took place from the 1920s until 1950 at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, under the direction of a woman named Georgia Tann. Although Tann covered her tracks through falsification of thousands of records, some survivors have been able to piece together the history of how they were abducted from their impoverished parents and sold by Tann to wealthy families. Children with blonde hair and blue eyes fetched especially high prices. Tann never came to trial because she died in 1950 just as the her nefarious scheme was being exposed.   

Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours is a novel, but it’s based on the actual remembrances of survivors who lived in Tann’s squalid holding facility while they were waiting to be sold. In this re-creation, we meet the fictional Foss children through the eyes of the eldest, Rill Foss, who is twelve. In 1939, she and her four younger siblings are living happily with their loving parents on a houseboat that plies the Mississippi River. When the mother faces complications in childbirth, the father rushes her to a hospital on shore, and Rill is left to supervise her siblings. She’s powerless when strangers arrive at the houseboat and spirit all the children away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis. In first-person narration, Rill describes the maltreatment of the children with a level of detail that I found painful to read.  

Novelist Wingate wisely softens this narration by flashing forward in alternate chapters to the life of a young woman named Avery Stafford, an affluent attorney in present-day South Carolina. Avery stumbles upon some pieces of her family’s history that confuse her, and she sets out to unravel the mysteries of her lineage. Readers know that the story from 1939 and the story from the present day are likely to coalesce at some point, and Wingate handles the tension that leads to the solution of the mysteries adeptly, throwing in a couple of sub-plots to further pique reader interest. The tenacity of familial love is a central theme in this fictionalization of a dark chapter in the history of adoption services.  

Postscript: Many thanks to Dorothy Needham Moreno for suggesting this author for me to read! 

Social Histories of Detroit

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story    David Maraniss     (2015)

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I’ve been reading a lot of Detroit histories as background for a novel I’m currently writing. This is my favorite.  

Journalist David Maraniss combines deep research with eminent readability as he describes  Detroit in a narrow but critical slice of time—from the fall of 1962 into the spring of 1964. In an Author’s Note, Maraniss confirms that “the city itself is the main character in this urban biography” (xiii). But a dozen or so of Detroit’s prominent inhabitants are featured also, their stories woven through the narrative, their characters and personalities tellingly revealed: labor leader Walter Reuther, auto exec Henry Ford II (“the Deuce”), Aretha’s father the Rev CL Franklin, mayor Jerome P Cavanagh, and Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr, among others.  

Maraniss also interviewed many ordinary citizens. I found the remembrances of Robert C Ankony, as transcribed by Maraniss, particularly effective in evoking Southwest Detroit, which was smack up against the border with Dearborn. He describes the smokestack smell from the foundry at the River Rouge Complex and the look of the storefronts on West Vernor and Michigan. Ankony was a 14-year-old truant from school on the fateful day of November 9, 1962, when he became an eyewitness to the massive fire that burned the Ford Rotunda to the ground. The Rotunda was a fabulous exhibition space that was one of the five top tourist attractions in the US at the time, and its destruction, which opens Once in a Great City, portends coming troubles in all sectors of Detroit life.  

Complete with maps to help you visually locate key sites from the period, Once in a Great City chronicles the battles for civil rights, the marketing of the first Ford Mustang, and Detroit’s failed bid to host the 1968 Olympics. National events form a backdrop: the assassination of JFK, the rise to prominence of MLK, the Great Society promises of LBJ. These three men paid attention to Detroit in the early Sixties because it was then still a truly great city.  

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit     Thomas J. Sugrue     (1996, with a new preface by the author in the 2005 edition) 

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In academic research about 20th-century Detroit, everything starts with this classic social history, which breaks through previous assumptions that a “culture of poverty” and the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson created urban decline in Rust Belt cities such as Detroit. Thomas Sugrue amasses meticulous details to construct instead a picture of deindustrialization and of discrimination in employment and housing that led to an impoverished underclass of African Americans hopelessly stuck in a deteriorating urban landscape. 

The research basis of this book is astounding. Sugrue went digging in numerous archives, drilling down to the level of newsletters of local neighborhood associations and minutes of city commission meetings (as just two examples) to extract the story of what really happened in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. He didn’t rely just on newspaper accounts or police reports, which were often skewed to downplay racial violence, redlining, and the shenanigans of the captains of industry. While we may assume that the 1950s were a period of unalloyed American prosperity, Sugrue’s data demonstrate that the societal prejudices of the 1950s and the previous decades led directly to massive unemployment, infrastructure decay, and white flight to the suburbs in mid-century and late-century Detroit.

The Origins of the Urban Crisis is not a quick read, but for anyone who wants to fully understand Detroit—and many other major American cities—it’s essential.

Two Novels Set in Detroit

I’m currently writing a novel set in 1960s Detroit, so I’ve been reading widely about this time and place. Two of my fiction finds are reviewed here. Watch for a future post on social histories of Detroit.

We Hope for Better Things     Erin Bartels     (2019)

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Interracial relationships are the theme of Erin Bartels’ multi-century historical novel. In the present-day chapters, white Detroit journalist Elizabeth Balsam, following up on a lead about unpublished photos of the 1967 Detroit riots, ends up at her great-aunt Nora’s farmhouse in Lapeer, about an hour’s drive north of the city. Elizabeth slowly uncovers information about Nora’s romance with an African American man in the turbulent Detroit of the 1960s; readers get this backstory in separate chapters.  

Yet another layer of Elizabeth’s family history is revealed in chapters set in Lapeer in 1861, when the farmhouse was a stop for slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad. I had to pay close attention to keep all the characters straight, but I appreciated all the local color and period detail in Bartels’ writing, as she places her characters at watershed moments of history, such as the June 1963 speech by Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, in Detroit. And that title? It’s from the motto for the city of Detroit: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”

Beautiful Music      Michael Zadoorian     (2018)

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If you’re familiar with the arcana of hard rock in the early 1970s (and I mean way beyond just MC5 and Iggy Pop), you’ll probably love this novel. That’s not my music, so I skimmed over the many references to bands and radio disc jockeys and album covers. I read the book instead for the touching story of a high school freshman at Redford High School, on Detroit’s far northwest side, in a period of increasing racial tension and violence in the city.

Danny Yzemski is a sweet, shy kid who’s bullied in school and beleaguered at home. His coming-of-age is aided by his discovery of the transformative power of music. He demonstrates that if you find the tracks that speak to you, the music can make all the difference in your survival. One chapter is aptly titled “Music Soothes the Savage Brain.” The detailed descriptions of Danny’s neighborhood along the Grand River corridor—the routes he took, the stores he frequented—re-create the era precisely. Even the breakfast cereals that Danny eats are authentic to the period. For vintage Detroit flavor, tune in to Beautiful Music.

Click here for a radio interview with author Michael Zadoorian.

Historical Drama in Tuscany

The Tuscan Child     Rhys Bowen     (2018)

Rhys Bowen knows how to write a mystery, having penned dozens of them for her three series—the Constable Evans, Molly Murphy, and Royal Spyness Mysteries. In The Tuscan Child, a standalone novel, she tucks several mysteries into a package that also holds its own as a historical novel.  

The story shifts between 1944-45 and 1973 in alternating chapters. In the World War II sequences, British bomber pilot Hugo Langley lies badly wounded near the fictional village of San Salvatore in Nazi-held Tuscany, tended for many weeks by the kindly Sofia Bartoli. He hides in the ruins of a monastery as he gains strength and tries to plan an escape to the south, where there are Allied forces. 

Readers know that Hugo survives the war, because decades later, Hugo’s daughter, Joanna, is sorting out her father’s belongings after his sudden death near the family’s former estate in England. When Joanna finds a letter, returned as undeliverable, that Hugo wrote to Sofia after the war, she decides to travel to Tuscany herself to unravel the secrets of Hugo’s war service. Tangled in with these two stories are the unknown activities of the Nazi soldiers and of the Tuscan resistance during World War II, the business dealings of a wealthy landowner in San Salvatore, and a surprise murder. In 1973, World War II was still fresh in the memories of the European civilians who survived devastating conflict in their countryside, but they may choose to forget. 

Italian cuisine provides a mouthwatering backdrop to the Tuscan adventures. Raised on English food (think sausage rolls and Yorkshire pudding), Joanna has her taste buds awakened by basil and squash blossoms and homemade pasta and fresh-picked tomatoes. Even Hugo, during the severe privations of the war, learns to love flavorful Tuscan bean soup. Culinary delights prime the characters for amorous adventures.

With brisk dialogue and well-sketched protagonists, novelist Bowen kept me racing through the chapters to find out the fate of that Tuscan child and the resolution of all the other mysteries.