A literary turn from an author known for mysteries (Blue Deer Thaw, 2000, etc.).
Dulcy Remfrey is returning from a party when she gets a phone call. Phone calls aren’t exactly common in 1904, so she assumes the worst: her father’s dead. As it happens, he’s not, but neither is he well, and it seems that he has misplaced a very large sum of money. His business partner, Victor—also, once upon a time, Dulcy’s fiance—wants her to leave New York immediately and head for Seattle, hopeful that she might tease the truth of the missing fortune from her father’s syphilis-addled brain. Victor, a man with violent tendencies, is dismayed both by the prospect of being ruined—Walton was supposed to be returning from Africa with the proceeds from selling several mines—and the presence of the woman who jilted him. When Walton dies before anyone can figure out what’s happened to Victor’s money, Dulcy decides that her only option is to disappear. Thus, Dulcy Remfrey turns herself into the young widow Mrs. Nash. This baroque setup is nicely balanced by Harrison’s prose; the narrative voice here is restrained, with just a hint of quiet irony. And there’s the fact that, as fantastical as the scenario might seem, Walton Remfrey is an entirely believable Gilded Age figure: a mining magnate who got his start digging copper as an orphan in Cornwall, a lowborn man who built an empire with hard labor, constant hustle, and a lack of regard for ethics. He’s a raconteur and a libertine as much as he is an engineer and entrepreneur. Indeed, how readers react to this novel depends in large part on how beguiling they find Walton. While this is ostensibly Dulcy’s tale, she is trapped in a Seattle apartment with her dying father—not to mention the volatile Victor—for almost a third of the book, and, even after he dies, the story of her reinvention is, again and again, interrupted by vignettes from her travels with her father. Some readers will enjoy these picaresque episodes, while those who require narrative momentum will likely find them distracting.
Thoughtful, richly written historical fiction.