REVIEW: Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley
“The house, when I first saw it, seemed intent on guarding what it knew; but we all learned, by the end of it, that secrets aren’t such easy things to keep.”
It’s late summer, war is raging, and families are torn apart by divided loyalties and deadly secrets. In this complex and dangerous time, a young French Canadian lieutenant is captured and billeted with a Long Island family, an unwilling and unwelcome guest. As he begins to pitch in with the never-ending household tasks and farm chores, Jean-Philippe de Sabran finds himself drawn to the daughter of the house. Slowly, Lydia Wilde comes to lean on Jean-Philippe, true soldier and gentleman, until their lives become inextricably intertwined. Legend has it that the forbidden love between Jean-Philippe and Lydia ended tragically, but centuries later, the clues they left behind slowly unveil the true story.
Dear Ms. Kearsley,
The wait for this one was long – gulp, three years (railing at the earlier release in Canada) – but the end result is worth it. This is another tightly plotted, well honed book that is easy to read. In fact it’s more like sinking down into a comfy sofa and listening to stories from friends. I also think it shows that it’s quite possible to include and feature characters of color in historical books. However, it does have a slow start and the resolutions of some of the conflicts felt too easy in the end.
Charlotte – everyone calls her Charley – is the new curator of the Wilde House museum on Long Island – or LawnGUYland as a local pronounces it. She’s taken a two year job there in order to help her young niece. Both are shattered by the early and unexpected death of Charley’s older brother who had settled – resettled? – there where their father had grown up before fleeing to Canada during the Vietnam War. It’s complicated. Now Charley is easing into her new job – discovering the house where American Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Wilde grew up. Charley’s got most of the museum board members on her side though there is a cabal of three with whom Charley has to pick her battles and hills to die on.
A no-nonsense descendant of the original family likes her and is given the honor of telling her the tragic story that might explain the mysterious light that people have sworn seeing in the woods near the house. Frank doesn’t believe in ghosts and neither does Charley but the story is one she’d like to try and incorporate into the museum – that is if she can find any definitive proof that it actually happened. As she goes about digging into sources, others are digging, repointing, painting and otherwise historically restoring the house including a sweet and calm contractor who always “just happens” to have something Charley needs lying around in his shed. And who is also always fixing things for her and has coffee on hand. Sam is that kind of guy.
Lydia Wilde is stunned when her father returns from a trip to see his elder, and vile, brother with two paroled French officers who are being billeted with the Wilde family in their home until a prisoner exchange can be arranged. No one in the Wilde family wants them there especially given that brother Joseph returned from the battle of Oswego a changed man while Lydia also suffered her own loss then. Her father assures her that the men are gentlemen and one even speaks excellent English. The other, the silent one, is the one who concerns Lydia but the deal is done and there’s nothing but for the Wilde family to endure.
Jean-Phillipe is initially bored and since most of the conversations around him are in English, he spends his time wandering within the one mile limit of the house allowed to him and people watching within it. As a self-made Canadian officer who has risen in the ranks, he’s made it his business to notice things and form quick opinions of people although he likes to back those up with study. He soon catches onto some of the currents in the house but it’s a displaced Acadian who fills him in on exactly why the family dislikes the French and the war so much. Looking for things to fill his days, he begins to volunteer to help Monsieur Wilde and in doing so, begins to become attached to the family. But he knows that Lydia would never accept him as a suitor even if he had any future to offer her – something that becomes increasingly more unlikely as word begins to trickle down to them of French reverses in the war.
Will Charley be able to find proof of the historical doomed love affair, help her grieving niece, work out her relationships and reconnect her estranged family? Can Lydia and Jean-Phillipe discover love with the enemy and hope for any kind of future? And what about all the strange things that happen in the house that now have Charley spooked?
The dual time line is something I’m used to and familiar with in a Kearsley book. With so many characters and two settings to flesh out, there’s usually a lot of initial telling as well as showing. But this one seemed to have even more contemporary backstory ladled on it than usual. Trying to remember it all and keep a mental image of the Wilde House took a while for me to master.
There are lots of relationships to explore and get straight and several plot lines to be resolved. I felt the handling of some of this was uneven. There are things which slowly simmer throughout the story which I felt were wrapped up too quickly in the end or which fizzled out. And just to be contrary, I wondered at how Charley always seemed to find her proofs and so easily persuade other museums to lend them valuable artifacts. The reason the Wilde House is even a museum is due to its famous hero son – wouldn’t previous historians have managed to discover some of this over the decades, especially the last major treasure haul that drops into Charley’s lap?
Romances here are of the slow burn variety which actually worked well for me. Both are fairly obvious in how they will end but I enjoyed the telling looks, the mixture of courtly gestures in both time periods (gotta love a man who will rehang your door for you) and felt, despite the paucity of “yeah, this is exactly what I feel” words exchanged, their connections. What did annoy me is how someone as smart and perceptive as Charley wouldn’t see that her initial boyfriend is an ass (with literally no redeeming qualities) when every other frickin’ person does.
1759 was a time when a man’s word of honor meant something and we are shown that by several characters. I found the character notes at the end of the book fascinating as I didn’t realize one British Captain was a historical person skillfully woven into the story. The constant emotional and physical oppression of slavery as well as the more recent treatment of the Indigenous populations of Canada shade the narrative though Sam’s family’s abuse seemed more like a footnote chucked in to make a point. The villains of the story are more threatening than anything but in contrast to the other characters, I found them rather two dimensional.
This book did need a little time to take off for me. I ended up enjoying the romances though they are simmering rather than on the boil. The historical details are as usual well done however I was more ambivalent about the modern details of curating. Though I would have liked some more time spend on the resolution of the modern dysfunctional family relationships, still the writing captured me and drew me on. B-