Books We Loved, Oct. 2020
And while you’re looking through these, don’t miss our own new release: Joan Schweighardt’s River Aria, the conclusion to her Rivers trilogy, out just this week.
Catriona Innes, The Matchmaker (Trapeze, 2019)
The Matchmaker is a charming and surprisingly affecting story about a woman named Caitlin who runs a matchmaking agency in her small English village. Caitlin’s perfect marriage to Harry serves as the ultimate success story, and she promises her clients their own fairytale endings. But behind the scenes, not all is what it seems, and as we learn more about Caitlin’s past and her present, we start to ask one very important question—where exactly is Harry?
The question is answered about halfway through the book, as Caitlin deals with the repercussions of her fantasy life colliding with reality and its effects on her ability to promise happy-ever-after to those who put their trust in her. It has plenty of comedic moments and expertly deals with loss, grief, female friendships, and the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships in ways that never feel anything but completely real.
Caitlin is an endearing character, and the story is ultimately satisfying. While more women’s fiction than traditional romance, it should appeal to anyone who enjoys thinking about the possibility of forever love no matter the circumstances.—CJH
Patricia Morrisroe, The Woman in the Moonlight
(Little A, 2020)
“His hands terrified me.” So, in fine Romantic style, begins this exploration of the relationship between the composer Ludwig von Beethoven and eighteen-year-old Countess Julie Guicciardi. The passion of the master’s music causes Julie to faint, and she awakens in her aunt’s bedroom with Beethoven looking on. Despite a doctor’s recommendation that Julie restrict herself to Mozart and avoid stimulating music, she soon becomes Beethoven’s piano student and falls desperately in love. He writes a piece of music expressing his feelings and dedicates it to her. We know it as the Moonlight Sonata.
Alas, the powers that be in Julie’s world have no intention of letting her throw herself away on a penniless musician. Her declarations of devotion have no effect. Beethoven’s patron threatens to cut off his stipend unless Julie marries the man her parents have selected. But although Julie bows to pressure and weds Count von Gallenberg, her story—and even her relationship with the great composer, gradually losing his hearing—develops in directions that are quite unexpected. Although occasionally I found myself irritated by Julie’s obsession with Beethoven, who often treated her badly, it is a mark of the author’s skill that her Julie became so real that I wanted the same happiness for her as I would want for myself or any member of my family.—CPL
Eleanor Parker Sapia, A Decent Woman
(Winter Goose Publishing, 2019)
A Decent Woman begins in the early 1900s when Ana, an Afro-Cuban midwife now living in Puerto Rico, comes to the modest home of Serfina, a white woman, to deliver the latter’s first baby. Over the course of the delivery, which takes place against the background of a harrowing tropical storm, Ana and Serfina form a friendship that will impact both their lives for the next thirty years. Ana has many secrets, and Serfina is determined to learn them all and to help Ana cope with the tragedies they are meant to conceal. For one, Ana can’t read, and thus can’t possibly pass the test required for her to practice midwifery legally. Serfina promises to teach her. But Ana, who was born into slavery, has darker secrets than that, particularly regarding her flight from Cuba, and Serfina, who is somewhat younger, will have her own share of secrets in good time.
Historically, women living in this time period in this place did not have many options. Most hoped only to find a good man and marry, because good jobs for women were scarce and whoring was in some situations a necessity if you were unmarried and wanted to be able to eat. Arrests of women were frequent, and so were rapes, often perpetrated by the same men doing the arresting. Relationships such as the one modeled by Ana and Serfina made it just a bit easier to survive in a male-dominated culture.
Reading A Decent Woman is a fulfilling literary experience. The friendship between the women is both measured and heartfelt. Folklore, Yoruba spiritual practices, and superstitions among the locals color the setting fabulously, as do the many storms, the oppressive heat, and the impoverished coastal areas where so many of the wooden houses share a common wall or corrugated roof that it’s almost a given that when one house falls, the one beside it will follow. A Decent Woman is a beautiful book. It will pull you in and hold you close and whisper truths that can be as hair-raising as they are fervent.—JS
G. Willow Wilson, The Bird King (Grove Press, 2019)
Wilson, a gifted creator of magical realism, invents a fable about friendship between two marginal, mismatched souls—Fatima and Hassan, who live in Iberia in the transition from Muslim to Christian, the Reconquista by Ferdinand and Isabella. Fatima is an enslaved concubine in the Alhambra, and Hassan is the palace mapmaker who has magical abilities. A wolfish jinn helps them escape a female Inquisitor, ironically named Luz, with a mote of evil in her eye.
Fatima and Hassan flee to the imaginary island of Qaf, home of the Bird King. The island materializes because of Hassan’s ability to create maps of unseen places. The two friends are joined by sundry others and set out to create a new society. Fatima’s ongoing anger and outspokenness show that anger can be a motivating force for survival.
But she loves, too. She loves Hassan, who is gay. She comes to terms with her possessiveness, which limits love, with what truly is love and what is forgiveness. The characters are vivid in their emotions and reactions and their psychopathy. Wilson’s world is filled with gorgeous sensory detail that carries one along into the most fanciful events. This story was pure pleasure to read.—AA