Sent home from Vassar in disgrace, Jeanette Palmer is a romantic—after all, she did help her friend elope—and a gifted painter. But how can she cultivate her talents in Circleville, Ohio?
Set in late-19th-century belle epoque, when the arts flourished and the horrors of World War I had not yet occurred, Keenum’s debut novel is based upon her own great-grandmother’s life. Appalled at her disgrace, Jeanette’s parents send meek Cousin Effie to fetch her home. As she nervously awaits her parents’ arrival, Jeanette endures Aunt Maude’s interrogation, which beautiful, stylish, married Cousin Adeline knows is just a front for gossiping. To calm her nerves, Jeanette sketches Effie’s face, which so delights Effie that she arranges for Jeanette to sketch Maude—an effort to demonstrate her real skill to her family. The ploy works, and soon Jeanette, chaperoned by Effie, finds herself en route to Paris to study art. Meanwhile, back in Cincinnati, pharmacist Edward Murer struggles with the twin demons of Civil War memories and a laudanum addiction. After years of barely engaging with the world, Edward begins slipping deeper into depression, to the alarm of his family. His brother Theodore lights on a scheme: send Edward to Europe as a chaperone for his son Carl’s grand tour. (Perhaps there, Carl will be supervising Edward’s return to life.) A dinner party brings Jeanette and Edward together, as Carl accidentally reveals Jeanette’s scandalous past. As the weeks pass, Jeanette delights in her studies, navigates the dangerous waters of licentious men and finds herself drawn to the wounded pharmacist. For his part, Edward’s demons have pursued him across the sea, yet each encounter with Jeanette shines a little more light into his soul.
Sweeping in scope, with vividly drawn, rich characters, Keenum’s debut signals a writer to watch.