Friday, 17 May 2013

The Painted Bridge - Wendy Wallace

The Painted BridgeThe Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having recently read and enjoyed Blue Asylum I was interested to see how this book compared. At first appearing very similar - both set in the 19th century, both with heroines who have been placed in asylums by their husbands, and both featuring a natural longing to escape. Yet they are both extremely different stories with unique characters and a completely different feel to them.

In the painted bridge we meet Anna, recently married, taken on an outing to "visit friends" by her older, well respected, religious husband, who discovers to her horror that he has brought her not to a warm family home but to a run down mansion used as an asylum for women where he abandons her, having convinced the medical profession (with little more than a willingness to pay the fees) that she is mad and hysterical, and the more she protests her sanity, the more it makes her seem to fit the bill of hysteric.

She reluctantly accepts her fate and begins to mix with the other inmates, whilst undergoing some truly terrible "treatments" evident to us as torture.

A regular visitor to Lake House asylum is a physician - Lucas St Clair, who is experimenting with the new medium of photography to try and reveal the womens states of mind from the traits and expressions revealed in photographs. Drawn to Anna he seizes the chance to photograph her, hoping he may discover her innocence, yet fearing he may reveal further madnesses.

As Anna gets to know the other madwomen locked alongside her she discovers truths about her own background and learns about what almost all the women have in common - husbands or families who want them locked away for varying reasons. She meets and befriends Catherine, the Asylum Manager's fragile daughter whome she hopes may help her effect an escape, which she plans, whilst gazing at the pretty painted bridge in the houses grounds.

The characters are beautifully written, especially the women, you can't help but empathise with their plights. The story is subtle yet demanding, I just couldn't put it down once I'd started it.

If you enjoy well researched historical fiction set in the Victorian era and like strong, believeable heroines with plenty of character you'll love the Painted Bridge, and maybe you'll never feel quite as comfortable again, being taken to visit friends of your husband in the countryside! Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Promise - Ann Weisgarber


The Promise by Ann Weisgarber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like the author's first book The Personal History of Rachel DuPree which I thoroughly enjoyed this is a historical novel loosely featuring a real event - a devastating storm. I loved this book too, just couldn't put it down.

However this has much more depth than it would seem, it's a novel of place, of time and of people, all of which are described accurately and realistically. We are introduced to two strong and instantly recognizable female narrators. Told in turns by Catherine, an unusual woman at the turn of the century for having chosen to pursue a career as a musician. We agonize with her at the realization that her ill advised liaison with a married man has not just left her abandoned and broken hearted but completely ostracized by society, viewing her with the scorn and contempt afforded to any adultress she is branded a slut and unfit for polite company. She can no longer maintain the place in society she fought so hard to get and her life seems to be going from bad to worse.

It really brings home how limited choices for women were around the turn of the century even when they are leading a more modern and unconventional lifetsyle than is the norm - society has strict moral rules and woe betide anyone who does not adhere to them.

Meanwhile at the other side of the country in Galvseton we hear the drawn out southern tones of Nan Maynard a 25 year old working as a housemaid to recently widowed Oscar and bringing up his son Andre at his Mothers request - a deathbed promise made from the heart that isn't difficult to keep as she already loves little Andre and her feelings for Oscar are more complex but no less real. She will do everything she can to care for the man and boy she is now in charge of.

Catherine searches through her address book to find someone to whom she may turn for much needed help, she is jobless and soon to be homeless, but she finds everyone with whom she is acquainted has either heard the scandalous rumours about her and no longer wants to know her or are busy with their own affairs - so she seems to be friendless also.

Finally she writes to an old admirer - going back almost to her childhood and finds he is willing to rekindle a friendship by correspondence. Writing letters back and forth with her in increasing desperation, when he finally renews his proposal of marriage to her she grasps it like the lifeline it is and accepts. The suddenness of her acceptance gives her little time to prepare and she finds herself thrust into an alien environment hot, remote and unsophisticated, married to a virtual stranger and a reluctant child into whose Mothers shoes she needs to gingerly step.

When the 2 women in Oscars life meet its hardly surprising that they don't take to one another, but as life grows increasingly difficult for Catherine trying to fit in to this strange new life, it's no easier for Nan to adapt to working for her new mistress. Then a massive storm hits and everything could change overnight.

I galloped through this book, turning page after page, yet I savoured every word as a delicious morsel like a box of chocolates you want to cram in your mouth all at once but are so delicious you let each one melt slowly so you get every drop of flavour out of it. A truly delectable piece of story telling elevated way above the run of the mill romance the initial idea suggests to a piece of social history, heartbreakingly relevant to today. Wonderful.



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