Bellewether: A cozy but slow-paced historical novel

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley fantasy book reviewsBellewether by Susanna KearsleyBellewether by Susanna Kearsley

Susanna Kearsley is a popular Canadian novelist who writes historical fiction, favoring the dual-timeline model with a current plotline and a historical one that intersect in one way or another. Her novels are generally spiced with a mystery, a romance (or perhaps two, one in each of the timelines) … and a paranormal element, such as time travel, ghostly spirits, or a character with psychic abilities.

Bellewether (2018), Kearsley’s first novel in three years, is of the dual-timeline model. The historical plotline, set in about 1760, alternates between the points of view of Lydia Wilde and Jean-Philippe de Sabran, a French Canadian lieutenant who was captured during the French and Indian War (part of the Seven Years’ War) and is now billeted at Lydia’s Long Island home along with another French officer. Jean-Philippe speaks no English and Lydia ― for good reason ― carries a deep prejudice against Frenchmen and their military in particular, but neither of these things stop Jean-Philippe and Lydia from noticing each other.

In modern times, the story follows Charlotte (Charley) van Hoek, a museum curator who has moved up to the town of Millbank on the north shore of Long Island, to be with her grieving niece. In Millbank, the home of her ancestors (and where Charley’s estranged grandmother still lives), Charley also finds a welcome job as curator for the Wilde House, the Wildes’ ancestral home now turned museum, though there are a few museum trustees who opposed her hiring and are still looking to make life difficult for Charley.

Susanna Kearsley

Charley begins researching the Wilde family history, and becomes particularly interested in the story of Lydia and her rumored romance with a French prisoner of war. Local legend has it that the Frenchman was going to run away with Lydia but was killed by Lydia’s brother, and that his spirit now haunts the Wilde House. Charley, of course, doesn’t believe in ghosts. But then some inexplicable things start to happen …

Bellewether is meticulously researched and clearly a labor of love for Kearsley, who incorporates several elements of her own family history into this novel, which she explains in a detailed afterword. Bellewether deals sensitively with issues like slavery and racial and national prejudice. The Wilde family keeps a teenaged black slave, Violet, which initially deeply offends Jean-Philippe, who has his own reasons for hating slavery, but it soon becomes clear that Violet’s history and situation are complicated.

I found Bellewether interesting but oddly placid. One might think that a novel including a centuries-old mystery, wartime romances and conflicts, and ghostly dealings would be gripping, but the characters always feel somewhat distant and the novel rather long-winded and slow-paced. It just never fully captured my heart or imagination. Everything works out suspiciously easily and neatly, and there’s very little intensity in any of the interpersonal relationships, including the understated, slow-burn romances in both timelines.

The title Bellewether is from the name of a beautiful, swift ship owned by Lydia’s brother. It’s nicely evocative, but a bit of stretch to name the novel after this ship, which plays only a minor role in the plot. With just a little imagination, though, one might envision a particular member of Lydia’s family is playing the role of a bellwether sheep, the leader of the flock. And that’s all I’m going to say about that!

Bellewether is a worthy, respectable novel, if you enjoy cozy, deliberately-paced historical reads with just a dash of romance and the supernatural.

Published in August 2018. It’s late summer, war is raging, and families are torn apart by divided loyalties and deadly secrets. In this complex and dangerous time, a young French Canadian lieutenant is captured and billeted with a Long Island family, an unwilling and unwelcome guest. As he begins to pitch in with the never-ending household tasks and farm chores, Jean-Philippe de Sabran finds himself drawn to the daughter of the house. Slowly, Lydia Wilde comes to lean on Jean-Philippe, true soldier and gentleman, until their lives become inextricably intertwined. Legend has it that the forbidden love between Jean-Philippe and Lydia ended tragically, but centuries later, the clues they left behind slowly unveil the true story. Part history, part romance, and all kinds of magic, Susanna Kearsley’s latest masterpiece will draw you in and never let you go, even long after you’ve closed the last page.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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