THE DAGUERREOTYPE by Patrick Gregory


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The adventures and travails of a young Victorian lady who moves to America with her father.

The daughter of a distinguished British naturalist, Elizabeth Gow lost her mother at a young age and thereafter became utterly devoted to her father, managing his household and studying his experiments with equal care. When Dr. Gow is passed over for a university appointment, he concludes that his prospects are better in America; in 1851, he and Elizabeth set sail for Philadelphia. There, he finds himself once more the victim of academic intrigues and is robbed of a post at the University of Pennsylvania; but when the newly formed University of Wisconsin invites him to join the faculty at Madison, he and Elizabeth head west and settle in what is still essentially a frontier town. Despite the hardships, Elizabeth is content in her new world and begins to feel at home, until her father’s sudden death leaves her stranded and almost penniless. A talented musician, she ekes out a precarious living in Milwaukee as a piano teacher and eventually marries William Macready, a considerably older Irish engineer she met on the ocean crossing. Successful but feckless, Macready gives Elizabeth several happy years of marriage and two healthy sons before his business fails. She takes the boys back to Madison and raises them on her own, leaving Macready to his fate. Distant, self-contained, and taciturn, Elizabeth is in many ways a highly unlikable heroine, but her account offers an unusual perspective on American history and life. She dies in Iowa many years later, in a country vastly different from the one she came to. These final chapters have the air of an afterthought, lacking the detail and depth of the story as a whole; the narrative gives the impression of having been begun in leisure and finished in haste.

An honorable failure: a first novel written with great precision, understatement, and a measure of grace, but oddly truncated.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-8156-0825-X
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Syracuse Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2004