What I've Read This Week . . .
Alex Sheffield is a wastrel. He's a younger son who spends his time drinking, wenching and anything else that will estrange him from his illustrious family. He is quite surprised when his uncle suggests that Alex go to Russia to rescue a recently orphaned young relative. His uncle feels that Alex is a risk taker and would be the best person for the job. Alex feels his life is worthless and thinks his family is trying to get rid of him once and for all. Then, on the voyage to Russia, he meets Miss Octavia Hadley, who sees through his mask of bravado to the wounded boy inside and makes him feel human again. Octavia is the penniless daughter of a recently deceased country vicar forced to live as an unpaid nanny to her despicable cousin's children. When her cousin's husband tries to seduce her, Octavia lets him know soundly what she thinks of that idea, which results in her banishment to Moscow to work as a governess to a young English girl. On the ship to Russia, Octavia literally bumps into a thoroughly cupshot Alex who then kisses her. She retaliates and instead of becoming angry, Alex is amused. Octavia senses that Alex is hiding his vulnerability behind drink and she helps comfort him and care for him in a time of need. Hoping to never see Alex again, but secretly wishing she will, Octavia begins her new life with young Emma, who is an independent minded young lady, much like Octavia. The two quickly bond and when the French close in on Moscow, the ladies are abandoned by Emma's relatives and Octavia must use her wits to survive. Alex is not so lucky in his quest. First he must locate young Nicholas and then travel across the frozen country avoiding both the French and Nicholas's unscrupulous uncle who wants them dead. Alex and Nicky's journey intersects with Octavia and Emma's and soon they find themselves in the midst of an adventure worthy of one of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels forging close bonds that will leave them changed forever.
I have mixed feelings about this novel. I prefer the lighthearted comedy of manners and this could have been one, but wasn't. For all that it wasn't, it was actually a good story, if one overlooks the little inaccuracies and somewhat hurried plot. Alex is a deeply flawed hero. He has a lot of issues stemming from a family tragedy that have made him who he is. He has a hidden vulnerable side which he rarely shows anyone, yet Octavia perceives it right away and tries to help. Octavia is a very modern heroine, a follower of Mary Wolstonecraft (not Mrs.) and Jane Austen (published under "a lady", not her own name). She's intelligent and unafraid of anything, which made me like her very much. Alex and Octavia's relationship really works because Alex is flawed and Octavia isn't sure how to deal with that. It makes the relationship very realistic. Some of the plot is rather hurried in favor of the romantic development but overall, this is a romance that's much more than a typical romance novel and worth a read if you like more substance than sweet comedies.
Kit Zanetti is an aspiring playwright living in a Greenwich Village walkup in present day New York. Auntie Lu is the only other single lady in the building, a woman in her 70s whose nephew owns the building. When Auntie Lu invites Kit to tea and to go over some items Lu intends to give Kit, Kit is impressed with all of the wonderful things Lu has collected and wants to know Lu's story. In the 1950s, Lucia Sartori lived with her Italian immigrant parents and four older brothers in the building in which she lives in the present day. Lucia works as a seamstress and apprentice dress designer in the Customs department of B. Altman Department Store. She loves putting together gorgeous fabrics and trims and turning them into a beautiful dress. Now that Lucia is 25, her family and friends think she should get married. She is engaged to the nice Italian man, Dante DiMartino, but she has to discover whether her feelings for Dante and respect for Italian cultural traditions outweigh her love of being an independent career woman. Lucia learns a lot about love and family over the next two years. She has to make difficult decisions which may not be the best ones to make. All the while she mostly maintains her spunk and enthusiasm for modern life while respecting and loving her traditional Italian family. I sure could relate to Lucia! Lucia's family is a bit less crazy than mine (they're Northern Italian and we're Southern) but sometimes they drive her crazy just the same. Lucia's story is interesting and compelling read for women. I think many women will sympathize with Lucia's determination. Thank goodness in the 21st century, it's more acceptable for women to be independent, but it's a difficult path to take when it clashes with traditional Italian family values. The plot is a little slow to begin with and there are numerous descriptions of fashion but about halfway through the story picks up and then I couldn't put it down. Again I have mixed feelings about this novel. It was serious and rather sad at times but at the heart of it all is Lucia's Italian family who love her and support her no matter what. The one thing I didn't like was that Lucia's story is told in present tense, almost like a journal, which was weird considering it was a flashback. I would recommend this book to women in their mid-20s and especially those with traditional Italian parents or grandparents!
In 1573 ("after the ascension of Queen Elizabeth to the throne but before London's first theatre and Shakespeare") Meggy Swann arrives in London to meet the father she has never known, is accused of being a beggar and brushed off by her father. Meggy longs to go home to the country, to the brewery where she grew up, though her mother sent her away. Meggy grows angry with her father and with the world, for most people shun her because she is a cripple. Cantankerous Meggy's only friend is a goose, but her father's former assistant Roger would be Meggy's friend if she let him. Cantankerous Meggy must learn to fend for herself in the cold and dirty city because her father cares only for his alchemy work. His work consumes him and he largely ignores Meggy and leaves her to find her own way in the world. Meggy discovers that she can't shut the world out and that not everyone sees her solely as a cripple. Meggy learns there is more to London and to life than she had previously thought. Her happiness is threatened when she uncovers a terrible secret about her father. She's faced with an ethical dilemma and struggles to do the right thing. Meggy has to learn to stop feeling sorry for herself and take charge if she wants to survive. It takes a lot of understanding to like a character like Meggy. I understand why she is the way she is but at first I found her whiny and self-centered. As the story develops, so does Meggy and her personal journey is central to the plot. I liked learning about alchemy and the crazy things Meggy's father thought he was going to discover. Harry Potter fans will delight in another book revolving around the Philosopher's Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone as it is called in U.S. Harry Potter books). I'm not very good at chemistry so I had a little bit of difficulty following what was actually happening, but I just stopped trying to analyze it and read the story and it became more clear once it was explained to Meggy. As usual, Cushman excels in period details. The descriptions of London are incredibly gritty and realistic. I could see and smell the sights as Meggy traveled through the city. Cushman's other strength is in period language. This book is no exception. Meggy hurls fantastic insults left and right that are full of colorful language of the period. This is another fun read from one of my favorite authors!