REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s BELLEWETHER

BellewetherA new Susanna Kearsley book is cause for celebration. As Bellewether was a long time coming, I was tickled all the colours of the rainbow to read it. It is, at least initially, a novel that felt quieter than others Kearsley has written. I thought the first half of the narrative meandered, like a ship unmoored, like the ship it’s named after and like the bopping ghost-light in the Long Island forest that beckons to Kearsley’s contemporary heroine. Bellewether felt deceptively benign, but Kearsley’s hand steered the narrative ship on a sure course and it sneaks up on you how masterfully she does so when you experience the novel’s last third. It’s not as visceral a read as The Winter Sea, or as gothic-y and deliciously-Mary-Stewart-ish as Named Of the Dragon, but it sure is wonderful. 

Signature Kearsley, Bellewether is a double narrative: made of a contemporary heroine in search of discovering something of the past, a past that is meaningful and significant to her in a more-than-scholarly way. And there is a historical narrative, centred on people caught up in a particular era meeting, loving, and redeeming the losses and griefs of their pasts. The most wonderful idea that I took away from Bellewether is that we should never allow historical circumstance, the sweeping canvas of power and politics, to blind us to the possibility of HEA.

Kearsley is a master at the double narrative, reminding me of Byatt’s Possession (without the pretension, though). The novel opens with the story of a house, or rather the house seems to tell the story of its inhabitants. The Long-Island-set Wilde House has seen war, suffering, the loss of one country and making of another. Our contemporary heroine, Charlotte “Charley” Van Hoek arrives at the Hall-McPhail Museum to act as curator, to raise the museum’s profile by renovating it and unearthing what she can about the house’s great revolutionary hero, Benjamin Wilde, ” … daring privateer, a dashing hero of the Revolution, and – if one could trust the portraits – devilishly handsome”. As Charley notes, “The house, when I first saw it, seemed intent on guarding what it knew within its walls as long as it stayed standing; but we all learned, by the end of it, that secrets aren’t such easy things to keep.” It isn’t long after Charley’s arrival that she learns of the house’s eighteenth-century-hailed ghostly presence, a lantern that sways with the movement of one walking through the forest at night, reputed to be a French officer leading his love, Lydia Wilde, down to the water to their escape. That officer, Jean-Philippe de Sabron, had apparently been shot by Lydia’s brother, Joseph, a man who’d suffered from what we’d understand is PTSD after seeing battle at the Fort of Oswego during the French and Indian War.

Charlotte has additional reasons for taking this curatorial work. Niels, her brother, died recently and Charley wants to look after Rachel, her niece, to grieve together, eat together, normalize things as much as they can and get Rachel back to college. Kearsley balances Charley’s historical sleuthing with Charley’s complicated family history, as well as the goings on in the Wilde household, circa French and Indian War, especially the love between daughter of the house Lydia and the French officer captured in war, who is brought into their household until an exchange is settled between British and French powers-that-be.

Other than the snickeringly hilarious goings-on of museum board politics, which Charley navigates beautifully, a gorgeous man walks into Charley’s life in the form of one of the the famous Mohawk sky-walkers, the iron workers of Kahnawake et. al. (near Montreal, my native town!). Sam Abrams is a warm, gently humorous man, a fixer of doors, meticulous workman, architect, and rescuer of anxious dogs. His beagle Bandit, who needs doggy daycare until a resident labradoodle picks on him and he needs to be babysat by Charley’s niece, Rachel (which is secretly Sam’s healing scheme for both) is a hoot. Sam works renovating the museum, Charley researches, plans events, and fund-raises, and they fall quietly, gloriously in love, thanks to proximity, temperament, compatibility, and attraction.

In the end, however, Kearsley’s duo-narrated and narratived novel, despite its ghostly presences and characters caught in war, family strife (Charley’s own dad, like so many, left the US for Canada to protest going to the Vietnam War), and the realpolitik that every era brings, are people who  want to live with integrity, love and be loved, build with their hands and hearts in sync their own small version of paradise. Kearsley’s book, as Charley notes, thinking how to market the museum, is a wonderful meta-romance, “The only thing people liked more than a ghost story was a good love story. This one was both”. Kearsley’s Bellewether is a superb ghost-and-love story!

Kearsley’s historical hand is loving and true, her understanding of how the past bears on the present doesn’t bog down her characters. She’s able to show them in their time and place, but she also lets them breathe, make choices of love and connection, without compromising duty. I loved that Kearsley’s characters, at least the ones I loved the most, have such integrity, never shirk place and responsibility, but still get their well-deserved HEAs. (And she only made me cry once, with the phrase, ” ‘Montreal has been taken. Vaudreuil has surrendered.’ “) We live with history’s legacies and are caught within its constraints, but, says Kearsley, with this her most hopeful, loving book, we don’t have to be trapped by it: forgiveness, love, loyalty, and integrity, goodness can light the way, can make it better. Miss Austen and I say that Bellewether is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Susanna Kearsley’s Bellewether is published by Simon and Schuster Canada. It was released on April 24 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I am grateful to Simon and Schuster for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.

6 thoughts on “REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s BELLEWETHER

  1. I finished this in the wee hours of this morning, having loved every page. It was deceptively peaceful on the surface, especially in the 1759-60 sections, with all this tension underneath. I loved the way that Jean-Phillipe was the one who noticed that Lydia was always the peacekeeper and the toll this role took on her. I thought Kearsley was masterful in doling out the hints and clues, always letting Charley interpret things in the most logical way, based on what she knew, while the reader gets to be one step ahead.
    I also enjoyed meeting up with Wendy van Hoek again (previously seen in ‘The Firebird’). I will have to skim through ‘A Desperate Fortune’ to refresh my memory re: at least one other minor historical character. I like these subtle little tie-ins between otherwise unrelated books.
    I really felt that I needed to say something beyond “Squeee”. I believed all of the romances, the familial reconciliations, the serendipitous finds, and the ghost. I loved the ghost!

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    • *sigh* Wasn’t it wonderful? I know exactly what you mean. It’s a deceptively quiet book, but it unfolds so beautifully and profoundly. Even some of the minor bits, like Niels inability to really ever fix anything, or Sam leaving the hardhat and boots on Charley’s desk: every little detail touched me. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and now, I think you should indulge in a really nice, contented, long sleep … given the “wee hours”!

      The ghost was perfect: both the false ghost and the real ghost and the reasoning for the ghost, perfect.

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