I’ve shifted gears a bit and left behind Regency England for post World War 1 America, the setting of Sarah Pawley’s debut novel.
Our story is of Grace Langdon, a sixteen year old girl living on her family’s farm in rural Virginia. The only daughter out of six children, a girl wasn’t worth much in those days. Grace is full of romantic ideas from her constant reading of novels, especially Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and insists she will only marry for love. She longs to get away and live a real life- not one where she is expected to marry and bear many children while disappearing into the background under her husband’s thumb. The ladies of the community already talk behind her back because she is unmarried at sixteen; their opinion of her being she is almost an old maid. The women of this time in much of the country answered to their husbands, and had no control over their own destiny. Grace is determined not to be one of those women. She knows out there is another life for her, where she can be free of the day to day back-breaking labor she is forced to endure, and live her life as she pleases. But that is a long way off, or so she thinks.
Enter Charlie- an old childhood friend who has returned when his father lay dying. Charlie is charming and handsome, having just returned from the war, and Grace wonders if she might have found a man she could love, and who would love her as she is, and not as a wife who heels to her husband. She is learns the hard way he is not that kind of man, but one like most- insisting a wife do his bidding. Not surprisingly her father arranges for Grace to marry Charlie, to which is vehemently refuses. Life on the farm becomes horrible after her refusal, and before they can force her into a marriage against her will, she packs up her belongings and catches the train to Chicago, and her older brother and his wife. Her older brother Jack fell out with the family when he married the revolutionary Alice and rejected the old ways of his community, and time has not healed the breach.
Grace arrives in Chicago alone and meets handsome theater owner Henry Shaw and his drama queen star of the show/mistress Victoria (a divorced actress living with Henry…how scandalous!) at Union Station accientally. Grace asks for his help to find her brother, who just happens to live across the street from Henry. Grace is greeted with open arms by Jack and Alice, and here starts the transformation of Grace into a modern woman, in a very modern city. It’s fun to learn how Grace adapts to the modern conveniences of life- refrigerator, gas stove, really anything that doesn’t require coal burning constantly and is powered by gas! During this, Grace is drawn to Henry, despite his aloofness and rudeness towards her, and Henry is drawn to her youthful freshness and outlook on life. With an overprotective brother looking over her shoulder, and a sister in law who encourages her independence, Grace is changed from a quiet girl from the country into an almost confident lady of the city who is falling in love. She is growing up. Grace and Henry become closer as she goes to work for him after Victoria leaves for Hollywood; her jealously of Grace too much for her. A secret relationship starts, with Grace learning to trust in Henry, and he doing the same while trying not to order her around. It makes for some comical scenes between the two. Of course, all cannot stay lovely forever, and out of the blue tragedy strikes in the form of Charlie and his old fashioned state of mind towards women. Grace learns much about herself and what she can handle through all this, and follows her heart towards the path to happiness.
This novel was so lovely- I cried at the treatment Grace suffered from her parents, her hopeful love Charlie, and then her parents again! I simply adored Alice and Jack- for who could be more perfect than them for a brother and sister in law? I absolutely fell in love with Henry and his vulnerability underneath his proud exterior. The author describes the harshness of 1920’s rural Virginia in vivid detail, and leaves nothing out when it comes to the lack of cars and the abundance of horses and buggies. Grace and Henry are written quite thoroughly and their emotions are portrayed beautifully. Chicago is captured perfectly as a modern city in the roaring 1920’s, with prohibition going strong. I found nothing lacking in the plot, and all in all it makes for a wonderful read. Sarah Pawley’s writing is very descriptive and flows beautifully; I had no problems at all feeling as if I was right next to Grace as she fed the chickens! Very gorgeous! Well worth picking up!