In Jewell’s debut novel, a woman grieving her son’s death in the first world war meets a magnetic preacher who unbalances her marriage.
For farm wife Isabel Fuller, life is an almost continuous round of daily chores: baking, cleaning, laundering, feeding the hens, doing dishes and caring for her husband and three boys. When she does have time to relax and think, Isabel can take little pleasure in it; she still mourns the loss of her son, Carl, who died in the Great War, and harbors anger toward her husband, who encouraged him to sign up. But Isabel is a good, thoughtful woman, the kind who will allow Pentecostal preacher Micah Kane to set up a revival space in her pecan grove because “I can’t seem to say no to anyone looking for the Lord—whether I think they’re looking in the right place or not.” She helps protect Caroline, a young girl left motherless, from her abusive father, Piggott. Both gestures have unintended consequences. From the first, Micah stirs up Isabel with the intensity of his desire. She tries to resist, but his sympathetic attention to her and her grief unlocks something. When they first make love, it’s in Carl’s room, and they talk about Carl afterward. Further conflict arises when Piggott tries to make trouble for the lovers. “Nobody believes it,” says Isabel’s husband, Edward. “Nobody but me.” As Isabel finds ways to be with Micah, her marriage grows colder. Ultimately, Isabel must decide to what degree to give in to her desires. Jewell achieves a beautifully specific portrait of a grieving woman. The era and settings come to life with well-observed details, whether “shouting ‘whoa’ instead of putting on the brakes” in Carl’s first car, or describing Isabel’s cellar shelves, “filled with jars of herbs, tomatoes, corn, beans, okra, pickles, apples, peaches and jelly.” Also lively are the erotic scenes, which have a real charge, especially set against the careful detailing of Isabel’s ordinary existence.
A novel that makes wonderful use of its historical setting to create an evocative portrait of a woman torn by grief and awakened by desire.