A review of Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral by Maria Doria Russell.
Tag Archives: historical fiction
Astor Place Vintage: A Novel by Stephanie Lehmann (Touchstone, $16.00, 396 pages)
The theme of Astor Place Vintage is familiar — vintage clothes, an old apartment and mysterious experiences provide a marvelous link to the past. It’s as if The Secret Lives of Dresses melded with Her Fearful Symmetry and The Secret Keeper. Alternating chapters, from 2007 and 1907, make for engaging reading. The issues faced by women who choose to be on their own, but a century apart, are similar and yet not.
This is a multi-generational tale about women; however, it is clearly not chic lit. Author Stephanie Lehmann has invested serious time and effort researching very early 1900s New York City. The restaurants, stores, street names and events portrayed (such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire) are real. Numerous excellently-reproduced photographs allow the reader to have a glimpse into the working world of women of that era. Department stores and garment factories were their primary employers.
In 2007, Astor Place Vintage shop owner, Amanda Rosenbloom, who is nearing 40, wishes she could convince her lover of many years, Jeff, to leave his wife. Jeff has been subsidizing the shop and the apartment upstairs; in other words, Amanda is a kept woman. Her livelihood is in peril when she receives a notice to vacate the store. Relocating is unrealistic as shop rents have become astronomical.
In 1907 upper middle class 20-year-old Olive Westcott moves to NYC with her widower father who manages a Woolworth’s store. She yearns to be on her own. Be careful what you wish for! Olive’s life takes a sharp turn and the tale begins in earnest.
A very elderly woman, Jane Kelly, who is 98, is the living link between the clothes worn by Olive and Amanda’s shop. Although the book is a novel, the lives of the characters naturally lead to intrigue and prompt the reader to speculate how the story lines will converge.
This is Stephanie Lehmann’s fifth novel, and while it is the first of hers that this reviewer has read, it won’t be the only one. Ms. Lehmann’s smooth writing style, excellent dialogue and meticulous research efforts prove to be an unbeatable combination.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Insightful, charming and wholly entertaining.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Astor Place Vintage will be released on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.
Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth (Touchstone, $16.00, 327 pages)
Have you every read a work of historical fiction that was oddly engaging, painfully true to the era and to the place depicted? Regardless of whether your answer is “Yes,” or “No,” Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol will easily surpass any read of this genre. Aside from some quotes and references to plays, poems and books by Wilde, this reader began the book with a blank slate as to the man or his life. The thought of a man as well-known and quoted as Wilde spending two years in a dark and dank prison was hard to imagine.
The particular time portrayed in author Gyles Brandreth’s mystery novel is the period that Oscar Wilde served in a British prison, or gaol. His crime was notorious behavior, late 19th century code for engaging in a gay lifestyle. The import of the sentence, two years at hard labor while housed in solitary confinement, is brought to the reader’s consciousness through a graphic narrative by Wilde as he experiences sentencing, intake, daily humiliation and threats at the hands of the prison warders (guards) and governor (warden).
While the first chapters are rather dreary, the story line begins to take shape and a remarkable tale makes it easier to accept the harshness of Wilde’s circumstances. Another literary figure, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is blended into the mysterious deaths that take place in the prison. Yes, there are a few sympathetic characters for balance and to move the plot along. Yes, I did check on the internet for the real story behind Wilde’s time in prison. Remarkably, some of the facts are as bizarre as the fiction that is blended into the story.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol was released on May 14, 2013. “Intelligent, amusing and entertaining.” Alexander McCall Smith
Silver Girl: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Reagan Arthur Books; $26.99; 416 pages. Hachette Audio, $19.98; 12 CDs.)
Elin Hilderbrand has placed her characters in Silver Girl on Nantucket Island in homage to its healing properties. The island is her home which makes the depth of details and atmospheric descriptions nearly magical. Clearly, writing well about what you know is more than just reporting what the author sees; rather, the emotional connections are more powerful when the soul of the location is translated into words. Ms. Hilderbrand seems to refine this talent with each subsequent novel. (A review of The Island: A Novel, a prior work, was posted on this site.) This reviewer listened to the unabridged audio version of Silver Girl narrated by Janet Metzger and Marianne Fraulo. Each of these women has a wide range of vocal ability which made listening to the book a delightful and satisfying experience.
In a way this novel is historical fiction, and in another it is a cautionary tale. The Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme revelation and the subsequent meltdown of many investor fortunes provide the general premise. Ms. Hilderbrand uses one of her writing strengths, portraying well-developed female characters, to tell a variation of the wife’s side of the scandal. The reader cannot help but hear the Paul Harvey intonation, “And now, the rest of the story…” as the plight of Meredith Martin Delinn unfolds following the arrest of her husband, Freddy Delinn for bilking investors out of billions of dollars.
Meredith Martin was the talented, studious and obedient Main Line Philadelphia daughter whose aquatic diving and academic skills were superior. She met and married Freddy, an ambitious student from lesser means, while on the rebound from being dumped by her first love, Toby. Although the interactions of the characters, their motivations and the impact they have on each other are vital to the life of a story, it is the way that each of them perceives his or her choices in life that makes this story connect with the reader.
Perhaps Meredith’s blind acceptance of authority, first that of her doting parents, and subsequently that of her husband, Freddy, set her up to be collateral damage from the collapse of the pyramid scheme. Or, maybe it was the knowledge that her actions in life required no courage or daring. Living a role prescribed for you may be easier than creating your own; however, eventually the shallowness and dissatisfaction must emerge from under the seemingly safe exterior. In Meredith’s case, worldwide infamy provided her the opportunity to create her own life. For others of us it may come in the form of a soul mate who appears to lead the way to a better life.
Even if you might be tired of the Madoff story, know that this spin is well worth the read.
A review copy of the audiobook (originally priced at $34.98) was provided by the publisher.