It has been a slow and lacklustre reading year for me so far. April held a few gems (Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Iris Origo and Elizabeth Bard’s Picnic in Provence stand out) and June has been respectable but otherwise the year has been bleak. I’ve read much-praised new releases and, much to my frustration, been unmoved by them all: The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson… I love all three authors and they all still write beautifully but these books just fell flat for me.
So what exactly have I been looking for? A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley, as it turns out.
I first heard about Kearsley and her historical novels shortly after I started blogging but it wasn’t until 2012 that I first picked up her books for myself. To be perfectly honest, there was still too much reliance on the supernatural (ghosts, inexplicable time travel, etc) for my rational self, but I loved Kearsley’s extraordinary attention to historical detail, her engaging writing style, her level-headed, competent heroines, her fascination with Jacobites…well, in the face of all that, a ghost or two was no great barrier. I read The Firebird with great pleasure when it came out in 2013 (Jacobites! In Russia!) and placed my library hold well ahead of A Desperate Fortune’s release this year, looking forward to learning about Jacobite supporters living in exile on the continent between the uprisings. I expected to enjoy it but did not suspect it would immediately become my favourite of Kearsley’s books (supplanting The Shadowy Horses) and one of my favourite books of the year.
Like most of Kearsley’s books, the story alternates between a historical setting and a modern one. But rather than being linked by the supernatural, the two eras are tied together here by a young woman’s diary. Cue much rejoicing by this skeptical reader. Our modern heroine, Sara Thomas, is an unemployed computer programmer with Asperger’s. At the request of her cousin, she finds herself in France attempting to decode a young woman’s diary from the 18th Century for a social historian, who hopes the diary will contain details of everyday village life and help relaunch his career. Instead, once Sara breaks the cipher, she discovers a breathless adventure featuring spies, assassins, pirates, royalty in exile, and, of course, romance.
While Sara is an admirable heroine (The Globe & Mail reviewer called her Kearsley’s “most endearing heroine to date”), I fell completely for Mary Dundas, the diarist. Born to a French mother and a Jacobite father living in exile in France, Mary was raised by her aunt and uncle following her mother’s early death. She has grown to adulthood with no contact at all from her father and elder brothers, developing into a smart, composed, loving, and very lonely woman. When one of her brother appears and asks her to come live with him and his wife, it seems like the family she has yearned after for so many years has finally come back to claim her. Instead, she soon finds herself living in Paris, helping to conceal a man wanted by the police. When he is betrayed and they find their lives in danger, Mary flees to Rome with a motley crew: an accused thief, a monosyllabic Highlander, and a woman who knows more about Mary’s past than she does herself.
I loved this book so much. The balance between the two eras is perfect and it says much about how appealing Sara is as a protagonist in her own right that I never felt frustrated when the narrative switched from Mary’s story to Sara’s. Sara has her own journey to take, albeit a far less dangerous one, as she attempts to open herself up to new friends and the possibility of a relationship. But it was Mary’s story that left me breathless at points – and not just from the thriller-like pace. There is, let us be frank, a rather dishy love interest for Mary. If you like your heroes protective, quiet, and kilted, have I found a book for you.
As soon as I finished reading, I wanted to start again. And, really, I can’t think of any higher praise for a book.