The destiny and descendants of a pregnant Irish girl enmesh with those of a blueblood New England family, 1908-2018.
Ross (What Was Mine, 2016) opens her first historical novel with an offstage death in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, followed immediately by an apparent poisoning at a Connecticut estate in 1927 and a tragic death at sea in 1908—for such is the trajectory of long-hidden family secrets. From this head-spinning opening, we settle in to the main action of the book, in which a child is raised by both his adoptive mother and, unknown to him, his real one. Continuing to move among the perspectives of these three characters and several others, in chapters set in times and locations that range over the course of more than a century, the truth of what happened at the Hollingwood estate is gradually puzzled out. Period details large and small are worked into almost every scene: temperance, suffrage, Halley's comet, President William Howard Taft, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the evolution of medical treatment, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and myriad customs and practices of daily life. From the introduction of powdered laundry soap to the early popularity of Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination—it's all here, and more detail is provided on many of these tidbits in notes at the back. A detailed family tree beginning in 1741 and related chronological charts will also please connoisseurs. The weaknesses of the book are in the plot: The central secret is kept too long for maximum effect; much turns on a false accusation that seems unlikely to have gained acceptance; and a blue bottle hidden in 1927 and found, with a marble in it, in 2016 both sheds light on the mystery and suggests confusing possibilities.
Fans of historical fiction will find much to enjoy—a reprise of the well-loved immigrant narrative and a meticulous depiction of early-20th-century life.