Tag Archive | historical novel

Book Review: The Signature of All Things

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked out this novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love.  I was looking for an audiobook that was available without waiting from the library website.  All I knew is that it was a historical novel, telling the story of the fictional Alma Whitaker.

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Alma was “born with the century,” in 1800, the daughter of Henry Whitaker, a man who was born poor but made a fortune in the business of plants.  Alma is bright and hard working, but not at all pretty.  She takes after her father and begins to study botany, at a time where women are generally only taught the finer arts of music and sewing.

Alma makes her way in a man’s world, never catching the attention of a man in a romantic way, but achieving successes with her research in botany.  But she’s lonely, she wants companionship, and perhaps most of all, she wants intimacy.

The novel follows Alma throughout her entire life, weaving an intricate story of characters, showing the joy and tragedy of a life whose outcome you don’t always get to choose.  Is it enough to find a career when most women simply find themselves to be the mother of children and in charge of a household?  Do we ever really know if others around us are happy or truly satisfied with their lot in life?  Is it possible to accept the pain of losing our loved ones?  Do we ever stop yearning for that which we do not have?

Alma’s life takes her from her father’s home all the way to Tahiti, as she seeks new plants, but also the answers to the questions she has about the human condition.  Along the way, she encounters so many others, who are flawed, imperfect and richly complex, all just trying to do what Alma is doing – find happiness.

Gilbert’s writing is excellent.  Amazing.  Despite what might seem at first a dry topic, this is a must read.  Although it is long, I was entranced until the very last page.

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Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr knocks it out of the park with this novel, set during World War II.  It is a NY Times bestseller, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (photo from Amazon.com)

Marie-Laure, is a blind girl living with her father in Paris; he works for the Museum of Natural History as its master locksmith.  He also has a talent for woodworking, and makes her a scale model of her neighborhood in Paris to assist her in learning how to navigate the streets without sight.  Soon enough however, the two must evacuate to Saint-Malo, a seaside walled city, to live with her eccentric great-uncle Etienne, his long-time housekeeper, and her father.

Meanwhile, Werner is an orphan growing up in Germany with a talent for building and repairing radios.  His skill is noticed by the Nazis, and he is sent to an elite school to hone his craft for the war effort.  This means he must leave his younger sister, Jutta, who has her own talent – she sees even at her very young age the evil that resides within the Nazi party.

Throughout the novel, the stories are intricately woven together, culminating with Marie-Laure and Werner meeting during the German occupation of France.  He lays bare all the cruelty and tragedy of the war, as well as the bravery that was exhibited by so many during the period.

Doerr’s character development is superb, and you can’t help but love some of them and hate others.  Despite your feelings for them, you see that they are all flawed beings, with their strengths and weaknesses.  I was entranced from beginning to end.

Book Review: The Heretic’s Daughter

Everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Trials. The unfortunate blight on our history that resulted in the executions of 20 people, proclaimed to be witches by the “evidence” of the day.

Kathleen Kent’s historical novel explores the family of one of the accused and executed women, Martha Carrier, from the perspective of her daughter, Sarah Carrier. Sarah was arrested and interrogated, and imprisoned for several months, but was ultimately set free.

The novel explores the themes of religious intolerance and persecution that existed in 17th century colonial Massachusetts, as well as the deep divides between families and neighbors that undoubtedly contributed to the naming of several hundred innocent townspeople.

The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The book also deals head on with the conflict that exists between a mother and a daughter coming of age, in what must be a timeless struggle. Sarah Carrier resents her mother, always assuming that family disagreements must be her mother’s fault. She only learns to appreciate her mother’s fierce loyalty and wisdom once it is too late to rebuild those bonds. Through reflection, she realizes too late that perhaps her mother might have been right.

Kent doesn’t deeply explore the complex reasons for the Witch Trials, but keeps her novel within the historical context with accurate representations of what is known about the players involved. She is skillful at describing Sarah’s surroundings, what it must have been like growing up in the farming community of Andover, Massachusetts, and the horrific experience of confinement in the Salem Town jail, crowded with so many people, and unable to escape the filth, disease or chill.

Kathleen Kent is a 10th generation descendent of Martha Carrier, so she provides a unique perspective, and has clearly pulled from the historical documents that have survived from the trial. The novel is well written and well researched, and pulls the reader into the story from the beginning to the very end.