19th Century Ladies

Gilbert, Elizabeth. The Signature of All Things. Viking. Oct. 2013. 512p.ISBN 9780670024858. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101638002. F

Born in 1800 to an early American capitalist who built a pharmaceutical empire from nothing, Alma Whittaker is given opportunities not enjoyed by her peers. A plain, private young woman, Alma devotes her time to the development of her mind and the study of the natural world. Life passes quietly, measuredly; botany and the family business fill her time, with little to disrupt the contented nature of things. Until middle age, when Alma falls in love—with Ambrose Pike, an artist and dreamer, a man who opens her mind and her world to things that cannot be measured with a ruler or seen through a microscope. Feeling more alive than ever, Alma basks in the joyous chaos her life has become. But when her husband dies unexpectedly, Alma takes to the seas, traveling the world, seeking answers, and finding that the truth was there inside her all along. ­VERDICT Gilbert’s (Stern Men) first novel in 13 years gets off to a strong, compelling start but loses its way midpoint; awkward plot points make the second half seem at times like another book entirely. With that caveat, readers who loved Gilbert’s smash memoir Eat, Pray, Love will likely enjoy this 19th-century take; those whose taste runs to female-centric historical fiction may want to check this one out as well. [See Prepub Alert, 4/1/13.]—Leigh Wright, Bridgewater, NJ

Horan, Nancy. Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Ballantine. Jan. 2014. 496p. ISBN 9780345516534. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780345538826. F

Horan chronicles the romance between Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) and his American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne (1840–1914), in her anticipated sophomore effort after the acclaimed Loving Frank. With both individuals looking to escape family difficulties, the two meet and fall in love at an artists’ retreat in France. They take up globe-trotting in the interest of Stevenson’s poor health, and their search for a curative climate takes them throughout Europe, across the United States, and, finally, to the Pacific Islands, where they live until his death. Stevenson’s illness and its impact is well drawn, as Horan captures the frustration of a vibrant mind trapped within a weak body. Osbourne’s ceaseless devotion allows her husband to concentrate on his writing, but her sacrifice comes at great personal cost to them both. Despite such renderings, the characters remain at arm’s length from the reader and their mutual passion never touches us. While Horan succeeds in presenting the couple’s entire lives together, much of the drama and relationship growth appears to have been sacrificed for the sake of totality. VERDICT The many fans of Loving Frank will flock to this novel, but those looking for a deep character study of either Stevenson or Osbourne may come away dissatisfied. [See Prepub Alert, 6/24/13; library marketing.]—Liza ­Oldham, Beverly, MA

Margulies, Phillip. Belle Cora. Doubleday. Jan. 2014. 608p. ISBN 9780385532761. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385532778. F

The legendary Belle Cora (1828–1919), one of San Francisco’s wealthiest women, begins her memoir after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, revealing secrets and deception in her own life and broader society. After her mother’s death from tuberculosis and her father’s scandalous suicide, Arabella Godwin and her younger brother, Lewis, are sent by their wealthy grandfather to their aunt’s family in upstate New York. Strict rules and grinding poverty are relieved only by Arabella’s friendship with Jeptha Talbot, fueling jealousy in her cousin Agnes. Their rivalry for Jeptha’s love plus Lewis’s penchant for violence dictate many of Arabella’s actions. After being raped by her cousin Matthew, Arabella reinvents herself to survive. Whether as high-class prostitute Harriet Knowles in New York City or notorious madam Belle Cora in San Francisco, she profits from associations with wealthy businessmen and prominent politicians. Belle’s experiences in places from high society to seamy street life include information on textile mills, gold rush fever, religious revivals, and vigilantism. She finds support from Charles Cora, a charming gambler who fathers her son. VERDICT Making his adult fiction debut, Margulies, an author of YA nonfiction, infuses his novel with historical detail without slowing the pace and makes the reappearances and interactions of characters plausible. The charm and self-invention that served Arabella throughout her life give voice to a story that will captivate historical fiction fans as they follow her exploits during a turbulent era. [See Prepub Alert, 7/29/13.]—Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato