Bellewether // by Susanna Kearsley

Most of the time it doesn’t really matter to me that there’s a big gap between reading the book and writing my review, but with this book I really wish I’d taken the time to sit down and dash off my thoughts when they were still fresh because I really, really enjoyed this book. As a side note, I read it for the traveling book club, so it’s already been mailed off to the next reader – this means I may get a big vague on names because my notes aren’t very good!!!

//published 2018//

Generally speaking, two things that I don’t really enjoy in books are: (1) dual timelines and (2) a touch of the paranormal. But this is my second Kearsley book (the first was Mariana), and both times Kearsley has taken plot devices that normally grate on my nerves and somehow produced a story with likable characters that kept me completely engaged.

Charley (a woman) has recently taken on the job of a curator for a historic home that the town is turning into a museum. The Wilde House belonged to a Revolutionary War hero, and the idea is that they will restore the house to it’s 1770s state. Charley has lived several years in the city, but was originally from this town. Part of the reason that she moved back was because of the recent death of her brother, who left behind his teenage-but-adult daughter. Charley has moved in with her niece to help her out during this time (since the niece’s mom has been out of the picture forever). There was a big falling out between Charley’s dad and his parents, and Charley has never known her grandparents, even though they live in the town where Charley is now living. It will come to no surprise to learn that the contractor for the historic house is a good looking, single, and practically perfect in every way. As Charley is gathering research for the museum, she is intrigued by a local ghost story/legend that says that during the French & Indian War (when the Revolutionary War hero was just a young man), two French officers were held as prisoners of war at the Wilde House and that while they were imprisoned there, one of them fell in love with Wilde’s sister – they tried to elope but one of her brothers killed her lover and she later killed herself from grief. Charley begins to dig deeper into the Wilde family’s history, trying to find more information to confirm or contradict the story.

Meanwhile, Kearsley gives us the historic story of what really happened in the Wilde’s home during the French & Indian War – a tangled tale of a family conflicted by opposing loyalties and frustration with the British government that is supposed to be protecting and helping them but isn’t. The seeds of the Revolution are shown well here, a harbinger of the complications that would divide families a few years later.

I ended up loving basically everyone in this book. Kearsley writes sympathetic characters, doing an excellent job of showing different perspectives and motivations, meaning that even unlikable characters are still understandable at some level. I love the parallel between Charley’s research and what we, as the reader, are learning about the true story of the past. Kearsley does a fantastic job of reminding us that all of history is based on interpretation because we weren’t there – the best we can do is piece together puzzles from the past and make our best guess at the motivations behind what was happening. The clearest example is when Charley finds records that prove that the Wildes were renting a slave from another relative, making an annual payment to him for her services. But as the reader, we’re privy to what was actually happening – the relative refused to sell this slave because he knew the Wildes would free her, so the best they could do for her was to pay her rent each year and keep her with their family, still paying her a wage for her services as though she were free. The present-day people pass a judgment on the Wilde family for “supporting slavery”, but the reality of what was happening was much more nuanced and complicated. It was just such a good reminder that our present-day view has decided what was right and what wrong in the past – but when you are actually trying to live through these things, it’s much more difficult to find the right path.

There is some argument to be made that the storyline for the present-day was wrapped up much to easily, but I’m honestly all about happy endings, so I was here for it, even if it was a bit too tidy. There was also a minor complication for me concerning written records from the past versus what actually happened, and why the discrepancy was there, but overall I enjoyed this story so much that I was willing to overlook it. There is a bit of a ghost story aspect in the present-day line that can only be explained by the actual presence of a ghost, something that isn’t usually my cup of tea, but that honestly worked here.

All in all, this story was much more layered and engaging than I was anticipating. I was completely drawn in to both stories, and loved the way that Kearsley wove them together in multiple ways. (My favorite – having something in the present link to a moment in the past – i.e. a thunderstorm in the present… and then the past chapter opens with a thunderstorm as well.) This was a 4.5* read for me, and one of my favorite books of the year.

Mariana // by Susanna Kearsley

//published 2012//

So as I’ve mentioned, I’ve joined two different traveling book clubs via Litsy, wherein members each choose a book of their own that they read and make notes in, then every month everyone sends the book they have in their possession to the next person, until you get your own book back.  Everyone along the way adds to the notes and highlighting, so when your book returns to you, it’s full of the thoughts of the others who read it.

Sometimes this means that I end up reading book I wouldn’t otherwise have picked up – hence Mariana by Susanna Kearsley, a romance that uses a plot device that I generally avoid at all costs.

Mariana centers on Julia, an illustrator of children’s books (how fun would that be?!).  When she falls in love with a house in the countryside, she is able to move there since her location is pretty flexible.  It’s not just any house – it’s a house Julia saw as a child and loved then, a house with which she feels a strange, intense connection.  The village near the house is very small, and Julia is soon drawn into the community.  However, she soon begins experiencing strange dreams/moments/visions about another woman who lived in this very same house back in the 17th century, and it seems that Julia’s life is entwined with this life from the past.

Normally I avoid any stories that hint at time traveling or a person in the present being a person from the past, or any of those types of weird semi-supernatural plot devices, but Mariana was such a delightfully written story that I thoroughly embraced everything.  Julia herself is warm and likable.  I absolutely adored her relationship with her brother, and loved that she and brother are close with their parents, too.  Her brother is a minister, and it was lovely to have a religious person who wasn’t portrayed as a hypocritical, power-grubbing creep (although we did get one of those from the past timeline).  While I still didn’t enjoy the whole supernatural connection between Julia and Mariana, it was overall handled deftly in a way that, while I couldn’t exactly believe it, I could at least accept and roll with it.

In the end, 4*.  The ending felt quite rushed, and while I liked the way the romance concluded, it seemed a little hard on the superfluous dude – it would have been nice to have some more conclusions drawn there, and more time with Julia and her hero.  Still, a book that I enjoyed, and one that has led me to put a few of Kearsley’s other titles on the TBR.