historical novels

TLC Review: Bellagrand, by Paullina Simons

Bellagrand-199x300Gina and Harry gave up everything to be together. But they both want different things—from their marriage, from life, from each other . . . and from the shifting world around them. Gina, independent, compassionate, and strong, desperately wants a family. Harry, idealistic and fiercely political, wants to create a better world, a better country. At a crossroads and at cross-purposes, they pursue their opposing dreams at great cost to themselves and those near to them. Through years of passion and turmoil they rail, rage, and break each other's hearts, only to come face-to-face with a stark final choice that will forever determine their destiny.

Their journey takes them through four decades and two continents, from extreme poverty to great wealth, from the wooden planks of the troubled immigrant town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to the marble halls and secret doors of a mystical place called . . . Bellagrand.

Simons recent novel, Bellagrand,  fills in the gap between two previously published novels, Children of Liberty and The Bronze Horseman, delving into the lives and relationships of Harry and Gina Barrington over a period of four decades, beginning in 1911. Although I hadn’t read the books on either side of Bellagrand, I was easily caught up in the story and able to orient myself to the plot and the characters.

The novel centers on the relationship between Harry and Gina, and the great love that exists between them, a love that remains steadfast through every trial Harry puts it through. Because Harold Barrington is a cock-eyed idealist, a man who steadfastly adheres to his anarchic political agenda through arrests, imprisonment, poverty, and loss of citizenship. A man who never gives up, even though it means dragging his family into the weeds with him time and again.

Bellagrand, the palatial home in South Florida that Harry’s mother bequeathed him, is the only place - literally or figuratively - where Harry and Gina have any peace. In this beautiful tropical paradise, Harry (who is under house arrest) seems to have come to terms with his revolutionary ideas, and their idyllic life makes Gina happier than she has ever been. Bellagrand becomes symbolic of all she had hoped her life would be. Yet once Harry is free, he is drawn inexorably back into the world of fomenting revolution - with disastrous results.

I flew through reading Bellagrand, my haste fueled by my anger at Harry for his ridiculous adherence to The Cause, no matter how devastating it made life for his family. How could Gina continue to stay with him and put up with it? I wondered. Her devotion to him was legion, and it saddened me to think that she might have had a far better life if only she had stood her ground. Their sexual attraction never wavered, no matter how difficult Harry was being. Gina seemed to be under some sort of spell, bewitched by this man beyond even the scope of time, place, and “traditional” women’s values.

I always enjoy a huge family saga, especially if it’s historical in nature, and read through the 400 pages of this one in just over three days.  Bellagrand was an interesting, fast paced read, but I found myself more aggravated with the characters than enraptured by them.  I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and there was no such thing to be found in this novel, which didn’t really entice me to continue reading the next installment of the series. If you’ve read the previous novels, Bellagrand provides some hefty “meat" in the middle of that bookish sandwich.

Thanks to TLC Book tours for the opportunity to read this book.


Bellagrand (uncorrected proof), by Paullina Simons

published by William Morrow, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-209813-9

Buy the book from Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indie Bound


TLC Book Tours: The Virgin Cure

The Virgin CureBeing a huge fan of historical novels, I was eager to read The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay, a new-to-me Canadian author whose first novel (The Birth House) was a number one best seller in that country. I'm not surprised, because McKay's writing and story telling skills are epic. The Virgin Cure is set in Lower Manhattan circa 1871. It's the story of Moth, a young girl growing up alone on some very mean streets filled with orphaned children and desperate women trying to eke out some kind of living. Moth's father is long gone, and her mother is a Gypsy fortune teller who sells her 12 year old daughter into servitude with a cruel, abusive society matron. Moth eventually escapes and spends some months on the streets before she is taken in by the charming Miss Everett, a Madam who runs something called an Infant School, which is really a brothel catering to gentlemen willing to pay a premium for desirable young virgins like Moth. In fact, some of them are seeking the fabled "Virgin Cure" - the belief that having intercourse with a virgin will cure them of syphilis. Moth's friendship with Dr. Sadie, a female physician who works among the indigent population, gives her the courage she needs to see a better life for herself.

Moth is a totally engaging character, and I longed to reach back in time and scoop her up for myself, bring her home with me and give her a good life. McKay creates such breathtaking word pictures that reading the novel is almost frightening at times, the reader feels so involved in the time and place.

And what a time and place! We talk a lot today about the poor situations children find themselves in - gangs and single parent families, hunger and lack of education. We tend to forget the history of maltreatment of children in this country. In an author's Ami McKaynote, McKay writes that over 30,000 children lived on the streets of New York city in 1870. Even more of them wandered in and out of tenements as their families struggled to find food and shelter. Most of these children were illiterate and would end up as thieves and prostitutes, dead before they ever reached adulthood. McKay's interest in this time period was sparked when she learned about her own great-great grandmother, the original Dr. Sadie, who worked the streets of New York along with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician, caring for the women and children of the city.

The Virgin Cure is a fascinating look at this time and place in our history. But it's also a story of perseverance and hope. Because Moth does find good people among the bad, people who care about her and are willing to help her, people who step up to make a difference, one child at a time.

Sometimes, for a moment, everything is just as you need it to be. The memories of such moments live in the heart, waiting for the time you need to think on them, if only to remind yourself that for a short while, everything had been fine, and might be so again. I didn't have many memories like that...No matter what might happen or what fate Miss Everett had in store for me, I now had the image of Miss Suzie Lowe to place alongside them. She would remind me that I was a girl who longed for things, a girl who wanted to become something more than she was seen to be.

If you enjoy historical novels, I highly recommend this book.

Connect with Ami McKay here:

WebsiteFacebook pageTwitter account,  Pinterest board.

The Sunday Salon: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and What’s On the Reading Horizon

You must know by now how much I enjoy historical fiction, so it’s no surprise that I was eager to dive into a new mystery series with a unique historical setting. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the first volume featuring the intrepid Maggie Hope, who works as a secretary in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet. Maggie’s skills extend far beyond her expertise in taking Churchill’s dictation on the silent typewriter keyboards he’s had created especially for his staff. Maggie is a gifted mathematician and code-breaker, and these skills are soon discovered and put to very good use.

Like any good historical novel, the period details are just as interesting to me as the plot of the book. Susan Elia MacNeal does a wonderful job of setting the scene and introducing all kinds of information about the period. The behind-the-scenes look at Churchill’s staff  was reminiscent of watching an episode of West Wing on TV. In a recent interview at All Things Girl, MacNeal said she was "completely and totally immersed in World War II history — books, documentaries, talking with Blitz survivors. I even had the honor of corresponding with Mrs. Elisabeth Layton Nel, one of Winston Churchill’s actual wartime secretaries. I also learned how to darn socks, make wartime recopies and sniff vintage perfume; I went to second-hand clothing stores to look at clothes, gloves, and hats. And I was lucky to be able to spend a lot of time in London at the marvelous Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, as well as the Imperial War Museum, Bletchley Park, Chartwell, and, of course, Windsor Castle."

It paid off big time, because Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was a wonderfully drawn portrait of its era. I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, which is already on my shelf.

But before I see what Maggie’s up to next, I’ll be reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple and Don’t Bother Me, I’m Reading, a memoir by Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air series.

What’s on your reading horizon?

PS - A serendipity...Before reading Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I read the novel Motherland, by Amy Sohn, a witty and interesting novel set in the neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Oddly enough, Susan Elia MacNeal lives in Park Slope, and is acquainted with Amy Sohn. I love stuff like that :)