• C. P. Lesley

Books We Loved, Oct. 2022

Here we are, midway through October already. Here in North America, the days are noticeably shorter, the temperatures cooler, the leaves changing colors. Halloween decorations have already appeared. Time to stay home, turn up the heat, and settle in with a good book. Here are three we recommend.

Sophie Cousens, Just Haven’t Met You Yet

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021)

When lifestyle journalist Laura’s boss sends her to the Channel Islands to research her own late parents’ legendary love story for a feature, what could be a career-maker very nearly ends before it even gets started when Laura grabs the wrong suitcase from the baggage carousel. But an exploration of the suitcase’s contents reveal a man who could very well be Laura’s perfect match—and a trip originally meant to explore her own history may actually be a stepping stone to her future.

But as Laura tries to track down the suitcase’s owner—and her potential true love—with the help of Ted, a local cab driver-turned-tour guide, as well as connect with relatives she’s only ever heard of in cautionary tales told to her as a child by her mother, she learns that having the perfect story to tell isn’t as important as discovering the life and love you really want.—CJH

Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait (Knopf, 2022)

As author Maggie O’ Farrell proved with her previous novel Hamnet, she needs little more than a handful of blurred footnotes from days gone by to create literary magic. Her newest novel, The Marriage Portrait, was inspired by Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” and the poem title’s historical counterpart, Lucrezia de’ Medici.

Lucrezia and her siblings grow up in a palazzo in Florence in the 1550s, the children of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici, and his lovely wife Eleanora. While Lucrezia’s brothers, who will one day become rulers themselves, are allowed certain freedoms, the girls in the family, three of them, live highly sheltered lives almost exclusively behind the palazzo walls. If they are being trained for anything, it is to display those qualities—discretion, humility, obedience—that will most appeal to young rulers whose offers of marriage may be advantageous to their father’s political ambitions.

Early on, and in spite of all the restrictions placed on her, Lucrezia shows herself to be a free spirit. She is not as obedient as her siblings; and because she is not always satisfied with what can be readily observed, she is not above sneaking into dark corners to eavesdrop. She draws when she is supposed to be listening to stories (though this act of defiance actually has a good result). And she insists on seeing the tigress her father, who collects rare animals to keep in cages in the palazzo basement, has had sent to him from India. When her father and siblings turn their backs, the bold Lucrezia even sticks her hand in the cage and touches the tigress, whose temperament she identifies with.

Lucrezia is the youngest daughter, with seemingly some time ahead for the adults in her life to encourage her to more appropriate behaviors. But then her sister Maria dies, just before she is to be married to the soon-to-be duke of Ferrara, Alfonso. Even though Lucrezia is only twelve, Alfonso offers to marry her instead, thereby securing the anticipated alliance between the House of Tuscany and the House of Ferrara in spite of the circumstances. Lucrezia’s parents are all for it, and it is only because Lucrezia’s beloved nanny is able to come up with a scheme to make everyone believe Lucrezia is too young to be able to produce the heir Alfonso is counting on that the wedding is put off, for a couple of years at least. But time runs out, as it must, and Lucrezia moves from the familiarity of the family palazzo to a setting where almost nothing—including the intentions of her mercurial husband—can be counted on.

The Marriage Portrait is elegant, emotional and particularly intimate as it plays out against the lavish backdrop of the Renaissance.—JS

Darcie Wilde, And Dangerous to Know (Kensington Books, 2019)

Even in Jane Austen’s time, people recognized that young women of good family but limited wealth faced an uncertain future. Such is the fate of Rosalind Thorne, whose father’s disgrace has relegated her to the sidelines of the social world in which she grew up. But Rosalind, unlike an Austen heroine, does not focus her attention on marriage as a means of restoring her status. Instead, she makes use of her connections and her hard-won mastery of how to operate in society to help out other women of her class. She does not charge a fee, which would be unthinkable for a lady, but the monetary expressions of gratitude that she receives from her clients supplement her scarce resources.

Here, in Rosalind’s third adventure, she has been called upon by Lady Melbourne to retrieve a packet of letters stolen from her ladyship’s desk. As indicated by the title—based on a well-known description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—these letters are so inflammatory that even the notorious poet fears their publication. Rosalind initially resists this commission, but when an unidentified corpse is delivered anonymously to Bow Street, the policeman Adam Harkness requests her help in identifying the dead woman, who was found at Melbourne House. Out of friendship, Rosalind reluctantly accepts, and the game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes would have said.

I enjoyed the twists and turns, the interesting puzzles and complex family relationships based on historical circumstances—for example, William Lamb, the future Lord Melbourne of the TV series Victoria, and his scandalous wife Lady Caroline Lamb play significant parts in the novel—the development of Rosalind’s character and personal dilemmas, and the ultimate, satisfying solution. But what I loved most was watching the traditional view of Regency society reflected through a distorting mirror that revealed its many cracks and flaws in the most natural and unassuming way.—CPL

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