Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lucy, by Ellen Feldman

Reviewed by Brittany Mangus

I don't really remember how I stumbled upon this book, but I'm glad I read it. This is a biographical fiction novel about FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford (Eleanor's personal social secretary and FDR's mistress).

It's written in the first person, from Lucy's (rose-colored) point of view. It takes place from 1914-1945, focusing mostly on the time period (1914-1918) when FDR met Lucy, which was before FDR was stricken with polio.

As a fan of similar period novels (The Age of Innocence, The Buccaneers, Ethan Frome, etc.) I was fascinated by this book; the characters exude the New England Victorian culture and Lucy mentions the strict social rules of the era. (For example, a patrician woman must never occupy a man's newly-vacated chair, for fear that his body heat may still be felt.) This book even weaves in some newly-discovered and very interesting information about FDR and another mistress, Missy LeHand.

I have read other biographies about former presidents so it was especially fun to read this "sort-of" biography in the form of a fictional novel. What was very interesting to me was how each chapter began with one or two actual quotes from people who knew FDR, Eleanor and Lucy. Often, they contradicted each other, which added a human element to the story.

FDR first met Lucy Mercer around 1914 when she was working in their home as Eleanor's social secretary. A not-so-secret romance blossomed. The affair was well-known to everyone in their social circle... everyone except shy, reserved, and repressed Eleanor.

However, in the fall of 1918, Eleanor discovered love letters from Lucy to her husband in his suitcase. Historians and this author agree that "the Lucy Mercer affair" was the catalyst that defined the great leaders who FDR and Eleanor herself would one day become. At the time, Eleanor forbade FDR from seeing Lucy ever again. Lucy, however secretly came back into the President's life near the end of it (the Secret Service gave her a code name "Mrs. Paul Johnson"), and was with him on the very day he died in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1945. What was not known until very recently was exactly when she re-entered his life. They now believe that it was much sooner than earlier thought.

It was interesting to compare the choices made by the women who loved FDR. Lucy married Winthrop Rutherford (a man 29 years her senior), whereas Missy never married and devoted her life to FDR. Daisy Suckley likewise never married and shared a similar expectation (with Lucy and Missy) that she would someday "retire" with FDR once his 4th term in office was over. Eleanor chose to remain married to FDR, despite accounts that she "did not act like a wife." (In fact, she frequently lived separately from him.)

There are many more secrets and interesting personality quirks and flaws that I will leave for you to discover. It is a fascinating novel about fascinating people- I recommend it!

"Lucy: A President, A Marriage, A Love Affair" By Ellen Feldman
Even though this book is about an affair, true to Lucy's patrician nature, there are no "details."
Biographical Fiction/Historical Fiction
304 pages
Published by WW Norton & Co. (2004)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Grave Secrets by Marlene Austin

Grave Secrets, by Marlene Austin

Published in 2007 by Covenant Communications, softcover, 341 pages

I don't have a lot of mysteries in my life, and those that I do come across, such as who ate all my chocolate and why Legos gravitate towards my bare feet, are easily solved. This might be why I like reading suspense novels, where the mysteries are much less trivial and more life-threatening. Bethany Clarke, the heroine of the book Grave Secrets, has problems that are definitely greater than a lack of sweets and the migration patterns of plastic toys. Not only has her boyfriend Peter disappeared under mysterious circumstances, but her grandmother Amelia has up and died on her as well. Any chance Bethany might have had to form a proper relationship with the woman who brought her up, but who kept her at arm's length throughout her life, is now gone. Instead, as it says on the back cover blurb, it seems that the wealthy eccentric, and distant woman who raised Bethany has taken pains to torment her granddaughter even from the grave. Now, in order to claim her substantial inheritance, Bethany must meet the strange conditions stipulated in Amelia's will. She must spend a year at an abandoned house in Maine – and write a book.

Bethany starts to come to terms with her new life at the "hut" and is soon busy remodeling, planning her book, and researching the woman who first lived there, all the way back in 1640. The legend of the woman of Faunce Cove tells of a time when hostile Indians threatened her family and left her husband dead in the forest. She escaped by hiding in a cave on the coast, hollowed by centuries of ocean tides, which the Indians believed was the home of the Sea God and therefore did not dare to enter. Bethany is fascinated by this woman, whom she believes could have been named Patience, and begins to write her book about her. Patience's story is integral to Bethany's new life, especially when Bethany's idyllic existance is soon threatened by anonymous letters and incidents that might not be the simple accidents they seem. Soon, Bethany doesn't know whom she can trust, and even the actions of old friends appear suspicious now. When the threats become more physical, Bethany also ends up hiding in the cave of the Sea God.

I can't exactly say that this book was fast-paced, and yet there was almost always something that kept me turning the pages, whether it was scenes that served to confirm the suspicions that Bethany has of people she thought were friends, discoveries that shed more light on Patience (and Amelia,) or, best of all, thrilling action sequences where Bethany is trying to outmaneuver her enemies and escape the threats on her life. Although this book is a suspenseful thriller, there are also some threads of romance that definitely do not get woven into the pattern that the reader might expect, and are all the more satisfying for it. I also enjoyed seeing how Patience's experiences more than three hundred years before had a bearing on Bethany's life.

I particularly liked the development of Bethany's feelings towards Amelia throughout the book. At first, she's hurt and outraged when she finds out that Amelia purposely kept herself distant from her granddaughter. Her prayers and efforts to feel at peace about Amelia seem futile, and she doesn't feel any urgency about having Amelia's temple work done. In fact, the picture of the Boston Temple seems to mock her. The distant woman Patience seems closer, and her emotions more transparent, to Bethany than Amelia. But then Bethany meets people who knew Amelia in a different way than she did. One man in particular, who knew Amelia as a younger woman, gives Bethany the advice to think about Amelia's entire personality and her complete life, not just her relationship with Bethany. Bethany takes the advice, and when she has the opportunity to find out more about her grandmother's experiences, she can better understand why Amelia locked up her emotions and became cold and distant. With understanding comes a softening of her heart, forgiveness, and a happy determination to do the temple work, not just for Amelia, but for other ancesters that her research has helped her discover along the way. I liked the addition of this extra 'emotional' mystery and thought that it and its resolution added depth to the book.

The first time I read this book, I felt exactly like Bethany herself; not knowing whom to trust and who would turn out to be the good guy or the bad guy. The second time, I was able to see the clues that were there from the beginning, and thought that they were presented in just the right way, to keep the reader guessing, yet be convincingly explained at the end. I enjoyed reading this book both times, and would recommend it to anyone who likes a good mystery or three.