An American woman's awakening to her vocation as artist and freed spirit is the subject of this impressively researched and detailed, if undramatic, historical by the author of The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (1991), etc. Begiebing's eponymous heroine and narrator begins her story "in captivity," in 1839, after she's been abducted by Joseph Dudley, the scapegrace son of a wealthy Massachusetts mill-owner who's commissioned the young widow, a gifted "traveling painter," to execute portraits of his family. Allegra resists young Dudley's schemes to coarsen her sensibilities and have his way with her (in scenes clearly inspired by Samuel Richardson's Clarissa), and—aided by a sympathetic stranger who turns out to be mariner and author Richard Henry Dana—escapes Dudley's clutches and is reunited with her manly brother Tom, Allegra's traveling companion and "protector." The story sputters early on, as transitions between Allegra's (rather fragmentary) memories of her early years and (sadly brief) marriage are awkwardly made. But Begiebing hits his stride as the increasingly confident Allegra makes her way among New England's intellectual elite, meeting suffragettes, abolitionists, and other reformers (including feminist firebrand Margaret Fuller) at a Brook Farm—like utopian commune ("Newspirit") and among the Boston Female Moral Reform Society, finding artistic and romantic fulfillment with male artists who accept her as one of them, and journeying to Italy, where she forms a curious friendship with "an abrasive young man" in the process of becoming the art critic and essayist John Ruskin. A subplot involving the impetuous Tom is merely distracting, and the novel hasn't much narrative tension overall. But its episodic structure eventually works: a fascinating world is created with real conviction. Begiebing undoubtedly tried to do too much here, but readers who accept his story's eccentric pacing and unusual texture will be grateful for his efforts.
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