In Rodriguez’s historical novel, a young man is captivated by a mysterious young woman living on his father’s estate.
In Sea Girt, New Jersey in 1890, Joseph Johnson arrives from London to see the property that his wealthy industrialist father, Samuel, has developed on the American coast. Riding through the dunes, the 19-year-old comes across a two-room cabin that houses his father’s 18-year-old adopted daughter, Isabel. Before this visit, Joseph knew nothing about the young woman, whom his father apparently saved from drowning off the coast of Colombia when she was small. To be fair, Joseph knows almost nothing about Samuel, either, as the man left him back in England to be raised by a nurse; his mother “disappeared.” Samuel now expects Joseph to marry Elizabeth Edwards, the beautiful daughter of a local doctor. Joseph likes Elizabeth, but he can’t get his mind off the mysterious Isabel, who everyone claims has tuberculosis. Nor does he know that Isabel almost succeeded in poisoning Samuel to death when she was younger. Isabel is anything but welcoming, but as she and Joseph get to know each other, long-held secrets threaten to come to light. Rodriguez’s prose is modern in style while still effectively evoking the particularly Victorian tension of words unsaid and emotions repressed: “His father’s decision to keep the secret places of his past dark didn’t help, of course. Joseph bordered on obsession about who the man was, without new thoughts about this girl—holding the memories just out of his son’s reach was an effective form of torture.” This is a short novel at less than 160 pages, and the plot moves quickly across that span. Its milieu—coastal New Jersey and, in flashbacks, Cartagena, Colombia—feels familiar without drifting too far into historical clichés. By the end, readers may not feel particularly moved or enlightened, but the story of Joseph, Samuel, and Isabel is, on the whole, a pleasant way to pass an afternoon.
A short tale that will satisfy a reader’s craving for Victorian pomp and family intrigue.