Putting 21st-century political correctness aside, compared to Lady Duff Gordon’s courage and complexity, Sally comes off as...

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THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING

British novelist Pullinger (A Little Stranger, 2008, etc.), who collaborated with Jane Campion on the novelization of the film The Piano, reimagines history in her U.S. debut.

In a renowned series of letters still in print today, Lady Duff Gordon recorded her independent travels abroad, highly unusual for a woman of mid-19th-century England; Pullinger recounts her version of Lady Duff Gordon’s stay in Egypt through the eyes of her maid Sally, who receives brief mention in the letters. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lady Duff Gordon traveled on her doctor’s recommendation to Egypt in 1862, reluctantly leaving behind her husband and young children. Thirty-year-old Sally has served her mistress devotedly for a decade by the time they depart England. In Alexandria, Lady Duff Gordon hires as her dragoman—a combination of “an interpreter, a guide, a factotum”—Omar, a young Egyptian also mentioned in the actual letters. With Omar, the ladies set off down the Nile to Luxor, where they settle. Lady Duff Gordon is remarkably open to studying the people of Egypt as well as its antiquities. Soon she and Sally are dressing “native” without the stays so symbolic of Victorian England’s restrictiveness. The Upstairs/Downstairs mentality is abandoned when Lady Duff Gordon invites Sally and Omar to share her meals. But if mistress and maidservant are soon besotted with Egypt, Sally is also secretly besotted with Omar. Never mind that he’s married and a father. When Sally realizes she is pregnant, Omar promises to make her his second wife, legal in Egypt. Unfortunately, no one informs Lady Duff Gordon until she’s called to help Sally deliver her baby. Afterward, Lady Duff Gordon keeps Omar in her employ while demanding Sally return to England and hand her child over to Omar’s wife. Pullinger portrays Sally’s ultimate rebellion as a courageous act of independence and Lady Duff Gordon as an unforgiving puritan and snob.

Putting 21st-century political correctness aside, compared to Lady Duff Gordon’s courage and complexity, Sally comes off as a self-delusional, whiny adulteress.

Pub Date: Jan. 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4391-9386-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2010

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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