REVIEW: A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley
Dear Ms. Kearsley,
I made grabby hands when A Desperate Fortune finally became available at NetGalley because a book from you is always a treat. I knew next to nothing about it because the blurb is not something I need to look at to know I want to read one of your books. I knew it involved an encoded diary and that’s about it.
Like your most recent books, A Desperate Fortune has a dual timeline – one in the present and one in the past but what is different here is that there is no time-slip or other paranormal aspect to the story.
Sara Thomas is a currently-unemployed computer programmer and amateur codebreaker. Her close cousin Jacqui is an editor and one of her authors is writing his final non-fiction book of a trilogy about the history of Scotland. He wants to use the contents of a diary as part of his research but it is written in code. Jacqui acts as conduit between Sara and the author, Alistair Scott, and Sara soon finds herself in France working on decoding and transcribing the diary. That is the present story.
The diary itself is the link between the dual storylines – it belongs to Mary Dundass, a second generation Jacobite exile living in France in 1732. Alistair believes the diary contains details of the life of an everyday woman in the court of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and, as he has far more interest in the lives of regular people than Kings and lords, its value to him is priceless. However, rather than being ordinary, Mary becomes embroiled in a plan to help a mysterious Jacobite man stay out of the grasp of English authorities and the diary tracks her journey over the country. her relationships with her compatriots and her budding romance with the severe MacPherson.
The reader finds out the full story of Mary’s adventures (thankfully) but Sara has only the diary to work with.
Mary’s diary was purchased by photographer, Claudine Pelletier, a woman who has had a past relationship with Alistair Scott. She insists the diary not be removed from her house and not be copied, but she does offer room and board in her beautiful Chatou home, Maison des Marronniers (“house of chestnut trees”), for Sara to come and decode the diary there.
This book can definitely be read as a stand alone but there are a couple of delightful Easter Eggs in it for those of us who have read your backlist. Claudine’s housekeeper, Denise, is the daughter of the couple who run the Hotel de France in Chinon and her brother is Thierry – who played a role in The Splendour Falls. In the historical timeline, Mary encounters a woman she much admires and wishes to emulate – a Mrs. Jamieson – who readers of The Firebird may recognise. And I think we can work out who the man who kisses Mrs. Jamieson is too. It isn’t necessary to know who these people are or how they relate to previous books because they are mainly tangential to the story but I’ll admit it gave me a little thrill when I recognised these characters.
Denise is divorced from Luc, her best friend and they share custody of a son, Noah. During her time in Chatou, Sara slowly and deliciously falls in love with Luc and finds a sense of family and belonging she had not previously known.
Sara was diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome fairly late in life – even now her parents refuse to acknowledge her as more than “quirky”. Her older cousin, Jacqui, took a special interest in Sara and helped her develop coping mechanisms and learn social cues, as well as putting her in touch with the psychologist who diagnosed her and then offered supportive counselling and cognitive therapy. I do understand that Autism Spectrum Disorders are within a range and a diagnosis of Asperger’s will not be the same in practice for everyone. It seemed to me that you researched well here and explained what life is like for Sara in ways that were accessible but I am not an expert. Sara herself believes she is incapable of maintaining a real relationship and over the course of the story this belief is challenged in the best of ways. Jacqui is loving and caring but her focus is on getting Sara to “pass” as neurotypical. In Luc and his family, Sara finds an acceptance of all of her, quirks included, with a calm matter-of-factness and patience she has not before experienced. Everyone has their quirks and triggers and hot buttons and everyone needs consideration of them. She is not so different, she is not so isolated, but she is also not expected to be anything other than what she comfortably is. (Needless to say I liked Luc very much. I am a greedy reader and would happily have read more of him. Even so, I can’t say their story was incomplete. Dammit.) Luc is so wonderful he has definitely given me a new appreciation of Financial Accountants.
“It’s a terrible plan.” He came closer. “No, really, you need to revise it. I’ll help you.” He kissed me—just lightly, but there in the dark of the cavern-like passage his touch left me buried in feelings.
I still tried to argue, “I can’t change.”
He rested his forehead on mine. “You don’t have to. Simple math. You only have to change the value of one variable to affect the outcome of the whole equation.”
My efforts to focus on logic were hampered by feeling his hands at the small of my back. “And you’re trying to tell me that you’re that one variable?”
“Well, of all the men you’ve known before, were any of them me?”
His logic made me smile a little. “No.”
“Then I’m the variable.” Lowering his mouth to mine, he set about convincing me, and did a thorough job of it. I wanted to believe.
He said, “You never need to change for me.”
Mary’s character resonated with me for a number of reasons. She was left with her relatives by her father when she was very young and even though it could be interpreted that it was the act of a caring father, it was also an abandonment. She believes she is easy to leave and her experience has shown her over and again that this is a truth. The hurts and slights she endures from those who love her with lazy unconcern could have made her bitter but she does not succumb to that. She is brave and fierce and it is not a wonder that MacPherson recognised in her a woman of uncommon virtue and far more than a pretty face. So too, Mary’s journey from her fear of the severe and not-good-looking MacPherson (even if he does have nice eyes) to recognition of his virtues; his solid strength and unwavering loyalty and devotion, to the point she wonders how anyone could ever think of him as anything but handsome, is a delight.
I am glad that Luc explained some things to Sara as she was transcribing the diary. Sara put it down to her lack of facility with subtleties and social cues, Luc thought it was more that men think differently to women. I was just grateful he explained because it unlocked meaning for me – much like the cipher key did for Sara.
One of the other delights of the book is Mary’s story-telling. She has always longed for adventure and as a young girl being raised by her aunt and uncle, she would entertain her cousins with made up stories. Her inspiration came from the fairy tales of Countess d’Aulnoy, which were contained in one of the few books in her uncle’s library. When she is called upon to be brave for the Jacobite cause, she puts on a mask and pretends to be brave – until her mask is no longer needed. She is a gifted storyteller and this helps their various disguises; she creates detailed backstories for their new identities which give them authenticity and flavour.
The fairy tales of Countess d’Aulnoy, as Denise the housekeeper explains to Sara, were not the same kind as the ones we now know (and which were mostly written by men. Qu’elle surprise!). These fairy tales were meant to be incorporated into novels and other writings in a wider context. Unlike the tales of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty et al, of women who were in need of rescue by the handsome prince, these fairy tales were of brave adventurous heroines who had to outwit handsome princes and the strictures of society’s rules for the conduct of women in order to achieve their own goals. Throughout the book, Mary tells this kind of fairy tale to her various companions, sometimes presented as truth, sometimes not, and there is a meta story within. The entire book has a subtle underlying theme of changing the narrative, driving the narrative rather than being a passive victim of it, which I loved.
Both of the romances in A Desperate Fortune are understated, as I’ve come to expect from you. But there is something so thrilling in the slow build of romantic tension and the almost low key declarations that make it so very satisfying. In another book, by another writer, I’d have been disappointed that there wasn’t enough. You manage to show the romance in more inconspicuous ways and, in some respects, I have to work a little for the payoff, but it always pays off and therefore it is always worth it.
While there are sections of the book of breathless tension, in general the pacing is fairly slow. Not boring. It is just that this is a book of subtlety, interspersed with some desperate adventure. It is a book which invites one to slow down and wallow. To roll the language around on your tongue as if tasting a fine wine and to savour the experience along the way.
I so appreciate your attention to detail and the way you weave real history through your stories. I have a feeling that each book you write has entire encyclopaedia of research behind it. Not everything makes it into the book (of course) but there is always a sense that it is there, a solid foundation for the narrative and something you know well. When it comes to historical accuracy, you are definitely an author I trust.
A Desperate Fortune is a book which reveals itself even after the final page is turned. The Author’s Note at the back only added to that feeling and, knowing something of the detailed research you did for the book only added to that depth. (And, because I was not quite ready to let go, after I finished, I went back and read my favourite bits of The Firebird because Captain Jamieson gives me all the feels.)
There were a few things which I noted, some of which may well be on me. It took me quite a while to understand exactly who was the mysterious Jacobite Mary and MacPherson was protecting and why. Also, while it was Sara’s book and Mary’s book, I would have liked a little more about Alistair and Claudine – the end to that particular story was too quick for me and left me with more questions.
As much as I loved Frisque, Mary’s little spaniel lap dog, I did wonder how having him along for the journey compromised their disguise. He was always Frisque and he always travelled openly with them. Surely he was a bit of a giveaway?
I did feel that A Desperate Fortune lacked a little of the narrative tension which was a feature of The Firebird or The Winter Sea (still my favourite of your books). By that I mean that the stakes didn’t seem as high, not that I was bored. However, it does have two gorgeous romantic storylines with two HEAs and there was so much that was beautiful about the book, that I didn’t see it as a major drawback; more, something to note.
Grade: B+ and definitely a recommended read. I’ll be buying a copy of A Desperate Fortune when it comes out so I can pet it on my shelf right along with your other books.