Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley (♦♦♦)


In 1760, during the Seven Year’s War, the Wilde family—led by Zebulon Wilde (father), Benjamin (son), Joseph (son), Lydia (daughter), and Violet (domestic slave)—take on two French lieutenants, prisoners of war, on parole of honor until they are exchanged for their British counterparts. During the months that the French officers stay in the Wilde home, the family’s lives are upended, for Joseph Wilde has not long ago come back from the same war bearing psychological scars after witnessing his best friend killed in battle.

Both French officers couldn’t be more different from each other: Lieutenant de Brassart behaves as if he had been a God-sent gift to the family, while Lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran understands the burden they are on this family, and behaves accordingly, befriending them, helping the men in daily tasks, and even falling in love with young Lydia Wilde.

In modern day, Long Island, New York, Charlotte “Charley” Van Hoek has recently moved to the small town where her late brother lived, to care for her niece until she comes of age and can inherit. Charley is working at a local estate museum—the Wilde House, which has been donated to the town and is under renovation to restore it to its former glory. Charley, with opposition from some members of the board of directors, wants to incorporate legends surrounding the family to the museum exhibits, for not much, if at all, is known about the remaining Wilde family members, except Benjamin Wilde who was a hero during the American Revolution. A museum ghost will come very handy in setting the facts straight and leading Charley on a path of discovery.

This is the eighth novel I have read by Susanna Kearsley, and it pains me to say, it is my least favorite. It started off intriguing; it seemed it was going be a family saga, or the story of a house through generations, and it was in a sense, but I feel there were so many missed opportunities with this novel.

Kearsley could have exploited more the angle of the Seven Year’s War, which she said was a precursor of sorts to the American Revolution. I can see how that was the case. Colonial merchants were getting squeezed with unfair taxation of their merchandise, having to do business only with the British, while British ships were free to do commerce in other ports, circumventing their own laws. Kearsley could have set a story, partly, in one of the forts that endured battle, to give an idea of how violent the conflagration was, how many lives were lost, how difficult the siege and subsequent falls of Quebec and Montreal were for the people living there... but the novel barely touched those angles. Instead, it mentioned those events, in passing, through letters focused on more mundane things. The same was true about slavery. In this matter Kearsley became a bit preachy in some characters’ voices, though it is fair to assume that seeds about the equality of men before God were already sprouting in the minds of British subjects this side of the Atlantic at that point in time. She could have explored this angle in more depth, but she didn’t.

What she chose to focus her story on was the matters that divide families, and perspective. Families were divided over issues of slave owning and their treatment, on where loyalties laid—during the Seven Year’s War, and the Vietnam War (as was the case with Charley’s father who dodged the draft and moved to Canada after his family disowned him). Perspective was explored rather creatively, because while in modern day people assume that a tragedy had happened in the Wilde House involving a French Lieutenant who haunted the property, mourning the death of his beloved and guarding the house’s secrets, in reality we see the story also unfold through the eyes of Lydia and Lieutenant de Sabran, and know that their lives were very ordinary during those months...So ordinary in fact, that it was borderline boring.

I had trouble connecting to the story. Not staying connected, just clinching to the passage where I had left off the previous day. I had trouble with this for several reasons: one, I was very distracted in general; second, I found that the time transitions weren’t smooth enough. The passages involving Lydia and de Sabran followed each other, thus we always knew how the same situation had affected each one differently. Lydia’s voice was in third person. Jean-Philippe spoke in first. Then there is Charley; she wasn’t fully developed as a character. She was mourning her late brother (kind of), had a boyfriend she cared about (kind of), wanted to connect to her estranged grandmother whom she had never met (sort of), didn’t really think about Sam that much but next thing we know they are (kind of) dating.

This is not Kearsley’s best effort by a long shot. It seems she wanted to honor her ancestors but the execution fell flat. The research wasn’t much to start with but it could have sprouted in several interesting directions. Being the gifted writer that she is, Kearsley could have told a rounder story. I guess this one wasn’t entirely in her.

Disclaimer: I received from the publisher a free e-galley of this book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review. I also bought my own copy.

Bellewether counts towards the R.I.P. XIII Challenge.

Comments

  1. I am sorry you were disappointed in this one. The cover is certainly beautiful. It sounds like a wide range of history and incidents with missed opportunities to explore them fully.

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    1. The cover is beautiful but the content fizzled. One fail out of eight is not a bad average.

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  2. I've never read Kearsley and am not really familiar with her although I see her name on best seller lists. I gather she writes mostly historical fiction. Too bad this one wasn't to your liking. Which of her books would you recommend to someone who's never read her?

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    1. Well, she writes a mash up of genres; typically they are historical fiction with some romantic suspense and paranormal elements too from time to time. Mariana and The Winter Sea are my top favorite. Either one can give you a taste of her writing best. The Firebird is another favorite of mine, but it depends somewhat on the events of The Winter Sea, so I would not recommend starting with that one.

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  3. I love Susanna Kearsley so I'm sorry to hear this book was a disappointment. It sounds as though it had the potential to be much better than it was. I'll probably try it eventually, but I still have The Winter Sea and The Shadowy Horses to read, so I'll leave this one for a while.

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    1. It pains me to say it, but yes, it was a disappointment, particularly because I requested an ARC and pre-ordered the book as well. I have been awaiting this release since last year, so it's extra bummer. Perhaps it was just my experience--reading the book at the wrong time--but other reviewers have similar criticisms, so I know the book has issues.

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  4. I also love Susanna Kearsley so I'm really sorry to hear this book was a disappointment! I have a copy from Netgalley too, but perhaps won't be racing to read it now, especially as I still have The Firebird to read.

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    1. Yes, starting with The Firebird is a good idea. That one is one of my top two favorite. I just hope you like Bellewether more than I did.

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    2. Ohh too bad Carmen: seemed like it had possibilities. Historical fiction can be tricky. I have just finished two set in the 1800s and I'm mulling them over.

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    3. I'm surprised that this one wasn't great because she is a consummated and gifted storyteller. One novel iffy novel out of eight is still a very good score. Maybe I'm too used to her stories set in Scotland. I hope you conclude good things about the ones you are still going over in your mind. You are right in that historical fiction can be tricky to pull off.

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  5. I also quite like this author and have a copy of this book so this is disappointing but I guess you can't love them all. I think I also have the Firebird so will probably pick that up instead
    Lynn :D

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    1. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the right book at the wrong time. However, I endorse The Firebird wholeheartedly.

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