In Fowler’s latest (The Sweetheart Season, 1996, etc.), a shady lady from New Orleans crosses paths with a respectable spinster in Gilded Age San Francisco.
Rumor has it that Mrs. Pleasant passed for white when she arrived during the 1849 Gold Rush. A reputed voodoo queen, she was a beauty then and she’s rich now, even though she still works as a housekeeper for her first California lover, the mysterious Mr. Bell. Her specialty: arranging parties at which wealthy men meet wayward women and keeping track of the inevitable results: illegitimate children, many of whom she simply sells to the Chinese tongs. At least, those are the whispers Lizzie Hayes has heard. Fat, 40ish, and unmarried, Lizzie devotes her days to good works and her nights to romantic fantasies. She helps run the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society Home for Girls, and it’s here that she meets Mrs. Pleasant, with unhappy waif Jenny Ijub clinging to the old lady’s skirts. Mrs. Pleasant drops subtle hints regarding a wealthy father who may well be persuaded to support this wrong-side-of-the-blanket offspring. The Home’s officials won’t approve, but the organization is perennially short of funds, so Lizzie reluctantly agrees to take in Jenny. She has nothing against the sullen child, and she’s drawn to Mrs. Pleasant, whose herbal concoctions cure her migraines. Lizzie even pays a call on Mr. Bell’s faintly disreputable but luxurious household and his languorous young wife, a visit that fires her romantic imagination in more than ways than one. But her sense of duty wins out: when a strange, shabbily dressed man visits the Home and asks to adopt Jenny, Lizzie acts on instinct and hides the girl. It’s not long before the man reveals the secret of Jenny’s parentage, then demands cash to keep his silence. Lizzie’s ultimate decision will surprise everyone.
An inventive, elegantly constructed, ably written peek into the secret lives of women from a historical perspective.