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Doorstopper of a first novel about a young 19th-century American woman who wants to live like a 20th-century free spirit.

Hague indiscriminately pads an essentially small story with big ideas—feminism, racism, and sexual freedom—as well as with such lurid attention-getters as rape, incest, lynching, sodomy, and spiritualism. There are two narrators: Arabella Leeds of upstate New York, 16 years old when the action begins in 1860; and Aubrey (Bree) Paxton, born in 1843, a light-skinned slave in the New Orleans household of the Paxton family. Arabella relates her experiences in diary entries, Bree in long letters supposedly to his grandmother, but as more characters are involved and he learns Gran is dead, that device is replaced by brief, dated summations of the action. The story opens promisingly as Arabella describes how a prank misfires when, pretending to hear voices at a séance, she annoys the townspeople with the accuracy of her predictions. Her embarrassed family takes her to London, where she will spend the next few years. In New Orleans, meanwhile, Bree finds his ambiguous position with the Paxtons (the master is rumored to be his father) increasingly intolerable as he grows older. While the Civil War rages, the household falls apart when Mrs. Paxton and her maid are poisoned; fearing retribution, two slaves hang Bree’s pregnant girlfriend Faith, who may have administered the poison, in the stableyard. Bree flees north to New York, joins the crew of a ship, and sails to England, where by a set of remarkable coincidences he meets Arabella, who knows the Paxtons’ daughter, and the two fall in love. But there are still pages to go, filled with repetitive detail and twice-told tales as the lovers struggle with a racist society, Arabella’s parents forcibly imprison her in a sadistic institution for wayward young women, and we learn of Bree’s incest-riddled past.

Overwrought and overlong.

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 2001
ISBN: 0-06-018491-4
Page count: 656pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2001