The Reluctant Duchess

The Reluctant Duchess is the second in Roseanna M. White’s Ladies of the Manor series.

Brice Myerston, the duke of Nottingham, was a side character in the series’ first book, The Lost Heiress. He was one of England’s most sought-after eligible bachelors, which he handled by being a notorious flirt to fend off serious advances from young ladies and their mothers. But he also had a close walk with God and uncanny sense of the right thing to do.

He finds himself in a knotty dilemma, though. His family has made their annual visit to Scotland to visit his mother’s family home not long after the death of his father. There, the Scottish laird, who has no use for Englishmen and has avoided the Myerstons all this time, asks the family to dinner. While there, the earl of Lochaber tries to set a trap for Brice to wed the earl’s daughter, Rowena. Brice steadfastly refuses at first. But then he realizes this is no title-seeking or money-grubbing ploy. Rowena is in serious trouble. Brice feels the Lord’s direction to protect her, and the only way to do that seems to be to marry her and take her back to England.

Rowena’s father has become harsh and distant since the death of her mother. Her fiance, Malcolm Kinnaird, seemed loving and kind at first. But his true colors came out when he forced himself on Rowena and became as controlling and as harsh as her father. Rowena hates that her father has set a trap for Brice, but she accepts his offer as the only way to escape.

But Rowena trembles at the thought of being a duchess in English society. And her fears come true when no one accepts her except Brice’s family and two of his closest friends. Rowena has been beaten down mentally and physically and has no confidence. She recoils from Brice physically and emotionally.

In addition to trying to discern how to help his new wife, Brice has another problem on his hands. He had offered to take and hide the rare treasure that had caused his friends, the Staffords, so much trouble (in the first book). But, though the main troublemaker had been killed, other dangerous pursuers are not giving up. And one of them is trying to entice Rowena into a false friendship.

This book had a bit of a rough start for me, with Rowena facing off against Malcolm, the knowledge that He had abused her, and a lot of yelling. In The Lost Heiress, even the villains had an air of gentility. In this book, even the Scottish nobility were quite rough around the edges.

But once I got into the story, I enjoyed it. Brice and Rowena had much to learn to trust each other, and each made many mistakes along the way.

The whole hidden treasures story line was as intriguing as any suspense novel. Besides the enemies Brice knows of, he discovers new unseen ones.

I think this could be read as a stand-alone story, but it’s a much richer experience to read both of them.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read by Liz Pearce. I thought she did a great job with the different accents, which added a lot to the story.

As always, Roseanna did not write a fluff piece with this novel. She leads her characters to an understanding of their need and God’s abundant grace in an organic and not a preachy way.

The Lost Heiress

In The Lost Heiress by Roseanna M. White, set in the Edwardian era, Brook Eden grew up as the ward of Prince Grimaldi in Monaco. But the circumstances of her real family are a mystery. When Brook was a young child, she and her mother were in a carriage accident. An opera singer came to their aid, and Brook’s mother asked the woman to take Brook, a packet of letters, and her necklace before she died.

Brook friend, Justin, thinks he has discovered her real family and makes the arrangement for Brook to meet them in Yorkshire, England. Brook’s father, Lord Whitby, and his sister know right away Brook is his lost daughter. It takes the rest of the family and the servants longer to accept her.

This happened fairly early in the story, leaving me to wonder where the conflict was going to come into the plot.

Well, there’s plenty of conflict. A distant cousin, Lord Pratt, is a predator who sets his sights on Brook as the heiress of the Whitby estate. He bribes a servant to spy on Brook and bring him information. Justin’s father dies, leaving him as the new Duke of Stafford. His responsibilities necessitate his traveling to his family’s holdings in other countries, leaving Brook vulnerable to Pratt’s machinations. Justin begins to feel more for Brook than friendship but doesn’t want to seem like he is only interested now that she is an heiress. He decides to wait. But when he returns, he and Brook clash instead of resuming their easy friendship. Unbeknownst to either of them, someone has been preventing their letters from reaching each other. Other suitors appear to have made inroads into Brook’s affections. And no one realizes the danger Brook is in from a possession she doesn’t even know she has until a near-fatal attack and a stunning betrayal opens their eyes.

Several of the main characters are Christians and learn to deal with broken dreams, new and uncomfortable circumstances, trust in God when He doesn’t seem to be near, and finding forgiveness.

In the author’s notes, Roseanna said she wrote the first version of this story when she was twelve, finishing it at thirteen! After nineteen years, nine books, and many rewrites, it was finally published as the first in the Ladies of the Manor series.

A story about a lost heiress finding her true home might seem like a fluff read. But I have found no fluff in Roseanna’s books. She brings so much depth into her characters’ personalities and struggle. I enjoyed this book very much and have already started the sequel.

To Treasure an Heiress

In Roseanna M. White’s novel, To Treasure an Heiress, Beth Tremayne loved exploration and adventure. She lived in the Isles of Scilly in the early 1900s and traveled to all of them in her sloop. She found some old letters and a map in her grandfather’s house that indicated a legendary pirate king had lived on her island, Tresco, and had left a fortune somewhere in the vicinity. That was fuel to Beth’s adventure-loving heart.

Beth had a trinket box, given to her by her mother, which had King Rupert’s seal on the top. Beth sent the box to the father of her friend at finishing school who was an expert in antiquities. Her friend’s father, Lord Scofield, authenticated the box—but then sold it! Worse yet, both Lord Scofield and his buyer, Lord Sheridan, were intrigued by the thought that more items connected to King Rupert might be on the islands. Scofield was interested mainly in the purported treasure, but Sheridan was a descendant of Rupert and interested in artifacts.

Worst of all, Sheridan had actually come to Tresco. Beth’s efforts to shield her family from the repercussions of her search had failed miserably. Her grandmother urged her to forgive and to work together with the family, and even Sheridan, to find Rupert’s treasure. But Scofield is looking as well and isn’t above using less than honorable means.

A secondary story line involves Beth’s former governess, Senara, who had been dismissed from her most recent job due to indiscretions. Senara had fallen in love with a man who had misled her, and now she feels tarnished and ashamed. A new friend helps her see that with God’s forgiveness, she can be forgiven and made new.

He makes us with great worth. Creates us that way intrinsically. Our sins, our bad choices, perhaps they coat us like mud. But the mud cannot take away the value He instilled in us. Mud does not make a pearl any less valuable. If it did, they why would Jesus have deemed us worthy of the sacrifice of His life? Because He loves us, as does the Father. Because we are valuable. And the blood of Christ, when it washes us clean, fully restores us to what He created us to be. A pearl cannot be stained. No matter how many centuries it sits in mud, wash it in a bit of water and it’s gleaming again.

This book is a sequel to The Nature of a Lady, which I enjoyed last year. I think this book could be read alone, but it’s richer together with the first. I normally wouldn’t be attracted to a book about chasing pirate treasure, but I have loved everything I have read of Roseanna’s. She manages to bring out deeper levels of meaning for her characters. Parts of the story are touching and sweet; some are even funny.

I didn’t like Lord Sheridan at all in the first book, and when this one hinted at a romance between him and Beth, I didn’t think it would work. But he grew on me in this story.

I found the resolution just a bit anti-climactic. But all in all, I found this a lovely story.

I listened to the audiobook, nicely read by Liz Pearce.

The Stranger

In Melanie Dobson’s novel, The Stranger, banker Jacob Hirsch lost his job in 1894 Chicago. His wife had died the year before. He decides to scrape together the cash he can and take his four-year-old daughter, Cassie, to Washington, where he heard work was available.

But Cassie falls ill on the train. Jacob gets off in Iowa, desperate to find help, though he has little money. A woman approaches him, speaking German. She takes Jacob and Cassie to the nearby doctor, who diagnoses Cassie with diphtheria and quarantines them. Liesel, the German woman, insists on staying to help nurse Cassie since Jacob is injured as well.

Jacob learns that the community he’s in is called the Amana Colonies. Its founders immigrated from Germany in the 1830s and the group lived a communal life style. The families lived in individual homes, but each member was assigned a job in the community. They were a charitable group, providing meals and help to those in need. But they were suspicious of outsiders and preferred that they move along as soon as possible.

Liesel works in the gardens, though she wants to work with children. It was arranged that she would marry Emil some day, a baker who wants to be a carpenter. She doesn’t really know him, but she assumes they’ll grow to love each other eventually. She finds it strange, though, that he hasn’t sent word to her or checked on her since she has been quarantined.

In close quarantined quarters, Jacob and Liesel find much to admire about each other. After quarantine is over, Jacob is asked if he will help out in the community while Cassie continues to recover. Liesel offers to take care of Cassie while Jacob works.

The Amana elders commend Liesel for her help but warn her about becoming too close to Jacob. Her father is more adamant than most, with his suspicion of outsiders heightened by his own wife’s leaving him and Liesel and the colonies.

But as Jacob and Liesel’s feelings grow, their dilemma does as well. Would Jacob be willing to stay? Would the elders even let him? Would Liesel be willing to leave the only community she has known for Jacob?

And, unbeknownst to either of them, unexpected trouble is brewing for Jacob back in Chicago.

I had heard of the Amana colonies briefly before. Some might confuse them with the Amish or Mennonites, but there are differences. Neither of those groups lives communally, but they all value hard work and simplicity. The Amana group was known as the Community of True Inspiration, and its followers were called Inspirationalists. They believed that God spoke through certain “instruments” in their time just as He did in Bible days, and they placed their books on Inspirationalist sayings on an equal plane with the Bible. Some of their sayings (sprinkled between chapters in this book) sound Christian-ish, but others are a little off. Like “Whosoever sincerely seeks the treasure within their heart must seek with diligence, abandoning all else. You must search deeply until you reach the unfathomable, wherein you shall be absorbed,” Johann Friedrich Rock, 1717 (p. 118)—whatever that means. So I would call this historical fiction, but not Christian fiction.

But I enjoyed learning more about the Amana colonies, and I enjoyed the story.

Amana members disbanded the commune in 1932, but the society is till there. Amana appliances came from this area, and that business was later bought by Whirlpool. Now the colonies offer tours and sell wares.

The London House

In Katherine Reay’s novel, The London House, Caroline Payne was working through an ordinary day until she received a phone call from an old college friend, Mat. He wanted to meet with her about her aunt, of all people. Caroline had been named for great aunt, the twin sister of her grandmother. But the older Caroline had died of polio when she was a child. What could Mat possibly want to know about her?

Mat was working on an article where he inadvertently uncovered information claiming that Caroline’s great aunt had been a Nazi collaborator who ran off with her German lover. As Caroline refutes Mat’s claim, Mat brings up evidence that looks genuine.

Caroline asks for time to research the issue on her own. She flies to London to the home of her late grandmother, now occupied by her mother. They find letters between the twins and diaries of Caroline’s grandmother, Margaret. As Caroline wades through them, she is taken back to the 40s and the twins’ coming of age in a life of privilege before war hit. But life-threatening illness and family tension separated them. Some of that tension remained to the current day in the distanced relationship Caroline has with her own parents. Will Caroline’s discoveries heal old wounds or make them worse?

I don’t know if this would be classified as a time-slip novel, but with some of the letters and diaries, we’re transported back to the setting and activities of the twins’ earlier days. In that sense, it’s also partly an epistolary novel. Katherine has a note at the end of the book sharing what elements were true or fictional.

I enjoyed the uncovering of clues in the older Caroline’s letters and the dynamics that brought healing to the younger Caroline’s family. Although WWII seems to be the setting of more novels than any other era, I do enjoy them even while I sometimes long for glimpses of other time frames.

It’s funny how certain themes seem to go around at the same time. For instance, I had never heard of the Monuments Men (who recovered art stolen by the Nazis) until the movie made about them a few years ago. But just this year I’ve read a book about them and seen them mentioned in others. Now there seems to be a theme of dressmakers involved in WWII, with The Paris Dressmaker by Kristy Cambron and this one and others. I hadn’t realized this book was going to involve haute couture and dressmaking until I got into it.

All of Katherine’s other books that I have read have been Christian fiction to some degree. I didn’t know that this one was not until I saw a review on Goodreads noting that this book was published under the new Harper Muse imprint and not Christian fiction. That’s not a problem in itself. Christian authors have many reasons for writing stories that aren’t blatantly Christian. Katherine does mention C. S. Lewis’s radio talks of the time which were later transformed into Mere Christianity.

But I was disturbed by a couple of elements in the book. One of the older Caroline’s letters describes her first sexual encounter. Thankfully, it stops before it gets too explicit. But the younger Caroline suspects her grandmother tore the rest of the description out of the letter because she was a “prude.” Then, the older Caroline was employed by Elsa Schiaparelli, a rival to Coco Chanel. She mentions the sexual innuendoes of some of the designer’s work, especially those in collaboration with Salvador Dali—and then proceeds to bring one beyond innuendo and spells out the sexual connotation of it. I could have done without that.

So, I have mixed emotions about the book. The story overall was good, but I was disappointed the sexual elements. Even though they probably would be considered tame by most other modern secular fiction, they were still too much for me.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Madeleine Maby, but then also caught the Kindle version on sale and read parts in it as well.

Shadows In the Mind’s Eye

In Janyre Tromp’s novel, Shadows in the Mind’s Eye, Sam Mattas is on his way home from WWII. He’s changed and scarred physically and mentally by what he has experienced, seen, and had to do. He jumps at loud sounds. He’s not always sure what’s real and what’s imagined.

But he’s going home. Back to his dear wife, Annie, and Rosie, the daughter he’s looking forward to getting to know. Good, hard, familiar work on the farm and peace and quiet will set him right soon. He hopes.

Annie has dealt with trauma of her own even before her marriage. Her abusive father was a corrupt judge. When she was a girl, she found her dead mother in a lake. But Sam rescued her from all that. Life was hard while he was away. She had to scrabble for supplies, do all the farm work herself, and take in her mother-in-law.

But Sam is on his way home. She knows, from what her mother-in-law told her about her husband’s return from war, that it might take a while for things to return to normal. But everything will be all right.

Except everything is not all right.

Much has changed, and their wounds run deep. They have to learn new rhythms and ways of relating.

Then Sam starts seeing things. Lights in the woods, men in the shadows. Sam is convinced that something nefarious is happening out there, and he must protect his family. However, his delusions only put them in harm’s way.

But what if he is not actually hallucinating?

The chapters switch back and forth between Sam’s and Annie’s points of view. Their mistakes and learning how to deal with each other is interwoven with the suspense of what’s actually happening behind their house, not knowing whom to trust, and everything not seeming as it appears.

I had not heard of Janyre Tromp until Anita interviewed her about this book on a podcast, Working Through Trauma in Literature and Real Life. Janyre’s experience with caregiver trauma and her grandfather’s experiences after the war led her to study PTSD. Her book was not out yet at that time, but I pre-ordered it then.

Some of the quotes that stood out to me:

Happily ever after don’t happen lessen each person in marriage works. It’s like a team of horses, They both have to carry their own load (p. 155).

Once you let yourself start feeling, it all breaks loose (p.147).

I stood quiet, soaking in her peace. Every motion was calm, sure, She knew where she belonged, and that sent her roots deep into the ground, able to weather whatever life threw at her (p. 122).

You’d think holding joy right up against sadness would shatter a body. But it don’t. Joy…it sneaks in all around where things is broke, sticks it all together and finds a way to make you whole. It’s where things is broke that joy shows through.

My one criticism is that characters say “Lord Almighty” and such. In my book, taking the name of the Lord of glory and using it as an expression is taking His Name in vain. If something is done in vain, it’s useless; it hasn’t accomplished the purpose for which it was meant. God’s name in meant to be reverenced, used in prayer, in worship, or in talking about Him.

Other than that, I really enjoyed the book. Parts near the end were quite suspenseful. I liked the realistic way Sam and Annie reached out to each other yet made mistakes as well.

The Paris Dressmaker

The Paris Dressmaker by Kristi Cambron is a tale of two women in WWII Paris.

Lila de Laurent is a dressmaker and budding designer for Chanel. But the salon closed its doors as Nazis took over Paris. Working odd jobs for a while, Lila is surprised by a call from an old friend from Chanel who has become a collaborator with the Germans. She needs a gown for a party and knows Lila’s style. At first Lila is repulsed, but then decides this opportunity affords her the chance to pick up information for La Resistance.

As Lila flees from danger one night, she runs into the man she once loved, whom she thought was dead. But whose side is he on now? Can she trust him with her secrets?

Sandrine Paquet’s husband is a French soldier, and she lives with her son and mother-in-law. The place where she works is taken over by the Nazis, who demand that the employees catalog and crate art work the Nazis have stolen from French Jews. The German captain, von Hiller, has taken an interest in her. To refuse his attention outright would be fatal, but she takes pains to be cooperative while keeping him at a distance so things don’t get too personal. Neighbors misunderstand, however, and accuse her of being a collaborator. What they don’t know is that she and her boss are working for La Resistance as well, right under the Nazi’s noses. Though their shop doesn’t deal with textiles, one of the items that came to them was a beautiful blush Chanel gown. In a few moments alone, Sandrine searches the gown and finds a cryptic note initialed LDL sewn in the hemline.

Kristy Cambron is one of the best storytellers around. She weaves historic and personal details into the lives of these two women with suspense, pathos, and a touch of humor. The faith element is subtle but vital.

I miss the days of linear stories that start at the beginning and unfold until the end. But that’s not the fashion these days. The scenes alternate between the two women at different times in their lives, before and during the war. It was a little hard to keep up with at first until I learned to pay attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter.

The author’s afterword shares which elements were historical and which were fiction, something I love to see in historical novels.

The Kindle version of this book is free with Amazon prime membership at the moment, and I got the audiobook at a 2-books-for-one-credit sale. With the Whispersync function, it was nice to delve into whichever one worked best for me in a given situation and pick up where I left off in the other.

Kristy has written another winner, in my opinion.

Hospital Sketches

In 1862, at age 30, Louisa May Alcott intended to serve as a nurse in a Union hospital for three months. She only made it six weeks before she became ill with typhoid fever and had to go home.

During her time as a nurse, she had written letters home to her family about her experiences. Other people urged her to publish them. She fictionalized and changed them a bit, naming her heroine Tribulation Periwinkle. But the experiences were hers. The “sketches” were published in four parts in the Boston Commonwealth, an Abolitionist magazine edited by a friend of the family.

Louisa didn’t think much of the writings, and mainly hoped just to make a little money off them. But these sketches brought her writing to the public eye, though she had written for the Atlantic Monthly before. She was urged to compile the sketches in a book, so she added material to them and published them as her first book in 1863.

Though there are six chapters in the book, we don’t really get to see Nurse Periwinkle interact with the soldiers until the third. The first story, “Obtaining Supplies,” deals with her decision to go, saying good-bye to her family, and a lot of frustrating detours and obstacles before finding the right people to get her documentation, tickets, etc. She comments about halfway through her troubles on this day:

I’m a woman’s rights woman, and if any man had offered help in the morning, I should have condescendingly refused it, sure that I could do everything as well, if not better, myself. My strong-mindedness had rather abated since then, and I was now quite ready to be a “timid trembler,” if necessary.

“A Forward Movement” tells of her travels to Washington by train and boat, including the sites she saw, people she encountered, problems, fears, and funny things experienced along the way.

Chapter 3, “A Day,” tells of her first day in the hospital where she was put to work right away. Within three days they received a large influx of wounded from Fredericksburg, and she was warned, “Now you will begin to see hospital life in earnest, for you won’t probably find time to sit down all day, and may think yourself fortunate if you get to bed by midnight.”

The sight of several stretchers, each with its legless, armless, or desperately wounded occupant, entering my ward, admonished me that I was there to work, not to wonder or weep; so I corked up my feelings, and returned to the path of duty, which was rather “a hard road to travel” just then.

This chapter and the fourth, “A Night,” are the best in the book. “Nurse Periwinkle” tells of her experiences and the men she met and treated. Some of the encounters are touching, some are funny as she “entertained a belief that he who laughed most was surest of recovery.”

In the fifth chapter, “Off Duty,” she tells of becoming sick herself and isolated. They must not have realized she had typhoid fever yet, because she took walks in town, visited another hospital in much better shape than theirs, visited the Senate Chamber and other sites until bad weather and worsening symptoms forced her inside. Even then, she did mending while observing the goings-on outside from her window. Finally she was so ill that her father came to bring her home.

I never shall regret the going, though a sharp tussle with typhoid, ten dollars, and a wig, are all the visible results of the experiment; for one may live and learn much in a month. A good fit of illness proves the value of health; real danger tries one’s mettle; and self-sacrifice sweetens character. Let no one who sincerely desires to help the work on in this way, delay going through any fear; for the worth of life lies in the experiences that fill it, and this is one which cannot be forgotten. All that is best and bravest in the hearts of men and women, comes out in scenes like these; and, though a hospital is a rough school, its lessons are both stern and salutary; and the humblest of pupils there, in proportion to his faithfulness, learns a deeper faith in God and in himself.

I believe I read in her biography that she’d had to have her head shaved–I don’t know if that was treatment for typhus or due to something else. She doesn’t mention it here except for the brief mention of the wig above.

The last chapter, “Postscript,” includes answers to questions readers had asked but also more observations and stories. I especially liked one quote where she, “having known a sister’s sorrow,” sympathizes with a woman who lost her brother: “I just put my arms about her, and began to cry in a very helpless but hearty way; for, as I seldom indulge in this moist luxury, I like to enjoy it with all my might, when I do.”

Along with the tales of some of “our brave boys,” she writes of mismanagement at the hospital as well as poor treatment of Black people. She also tells of some of the doctors, some kind and thoughtful, some clinical and lacking in bedside manner.

I’d have to say I like her later writing better. But even here, her wit, keen observation, pathos, and humor shine through.

I listened to the free recording of the book at Librivox and read parts in the free Kindle version.

I’m counting this book for the Classic Short Stories category of the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

Shadowed by Grace: A Story of Monuments Men

In the novel Shadowed by Grace: A Story of Monuments Men by Cara Putman, Captain Rachel Justice is a photojournalist during WWII. Her mother is dying of tuberculosis, and Rachel takes an overseas assignment to Italy to try to find the father she never knew to see if he can help provide for her mother’s treatment. All Rachel has to go on is a sketchbook given by her father to her mother with the initials RMA on some of the pages. Her mother refuses to say any more about her father and does not want Rachel to find him.

Lieutenant Scott Lindstrom is an officer with the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division, and stationed in Naples. He had arts degrees from Harvard and was a curator of a museum in Philadelphia. But he felt he could use his expertise to do something meaningful, to save history, to salvage beauty and meaning to sustain people after the war. He says, “We are defined by what we love and respect” (p. 28, Kindle version).

The problem was, his superiors and many soldiers didn’t take his job seriously. When lives were at stake, what did art matter to them? He had trouble getting the men and resources he needed.

When he did get a chance to talk to local people who might know where art was hidden, they didn’t trust him. The Germans had said they’d protect art, too—but they stole or destroyed much of it.

And now he was assigned to babysit a woman photojournalist who shouldn’t be so close to the danger.

So Scott and Rachel get off to a rocky start. But as they get to know each other, they appreciate each other’s mission and characters.

When Rachel shows Scott the sketchbook, hoping his knowledge of art and Italy may help her identify the artist, she doesn’t say the artist is her father. Scott thinks he recognizes the early work of an artist friend and mentor in the sketches, but he’s suspicious about why Rachel would have such a prize.

Scott is a Christian. Rachel isn’t sure she believes or trusts God. Her own father’s disinterest in her colors her view of God.

There is historical fiction that contains a romance, and romances that occur in a historical setting. I prefer the former, but this story is the latter. Still, the peek into the Monuments Men work, art history, photojournalism, the problems women in the military faced, the refugee situations in Europe all made for an interesting story.

One thing that jarred me just a bit was a major betrayal in the story that seemed to blow over much more quickly and easily than I would have expected.

But all in all, this was an enjoyable book.

Cara shares some of the influences that went into the book in an afterword and in the video below.

Were you familiar with the “Monuments Men” and their work?

Mourning Dove

Millie Crossan is the narrator of Claire Fullerton’s Mourning Dove. When Millie was in her teens, her mother moved the family from Minnesota back to her native Memphis after her divorce.

Millie’s older brother and hero is Finley, eighteen months her senior. She looks up to him, follows him, feels secure in his care. “His presence was one part security blanket, one part safety net, and two parts old familiar coat conformed to fit my size after years of wear.”

They loved their father, who was much more involved with them than their mother. But he was an alcoholic who had trouble giving up his addiction. His death, as well as his addiction, had a profound influence on both children.

When the family arrived in Memphis, Millie’s mother, Posey, melted right back into her role. But Millie and Finley felt like outsiders until they got the hang of the culture of keeping up appearances at all costs.

Part of the novel is a coming-of-age story. Part of it is historical Southern fiction set in the seventies and eighties. Part of it is a nature-or-nurture question exploring how two close siblings can come to such different ends.

We learn early on that Finley is no longer with the family. As the story unfolds, we see his unraveling, leading to a tragic end.

I rarely have trouble “getting” the point of a book. But I did with this one. I searched for interviews with the author to try to gain a little more insight. She says here that the book started as a poem and then was transformed into narrative nonfiction before she turned it into a fictional saga. Since Claire, like Millie, moved from MN to Memphis and was raised by “the last of the great Southern belles,” I wonder if she had a “Finley” in her life. She shares in this interview what she wants readers to take away from the book, “That it’s not what we’re handed in life that matters, it’s how we handle the circumstances in which we find ourselves.”

This review helped me understand Finley a little more, especially this line: “When a child with intelligence and sensitivity is reared in an emotionally unstable household marred by tragedy, he may direct his intelligence toward destructive habits and pursuits.” Millie, by contrast (though she was not unintelligent or insensitive), keeps her feelings to herself. Her mother and her culture don’t encourage heartfelt openness. But Millie’s other relationships are somewhat stunted.

I was also a little confused because I had thought this was Christian fiction. But it’s not. Posey’s spirituality is only the socially acceptable kind, Millie has no use for God, and Finley goes the opposite direction, becoming a cult leader.

The ending left me a little flat at first, because it seemed there was nothing redemptive, nothing hopeful. Of course, in real life, tragedy doesn’t seem redemptive or hopeful at the time. And even if we can see ways God used it, after time has passed, it still hurts. But in books, usually there’s something to be gleaned from the events rather than just the fact that tragedy happened. I reread the beginning and the ending, and was caught by this sentence: “Every chord their father ever played in this room went out into the universe to ring forever, because music never dies, and they were born with it inside them.” A loved one’s influence lives on after them.

Have you read this novel? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.