Two very different sisters, their post–World War II cosmetics business, a swashbuckling pirate novel, and a dead dog with a shoe fetish are among the wildly disparate ingredients Pywell (Everything After, 2006, etc.) stirs into a zesty fictional stew.
The author throw us off balance from the get-go, as older sister Lilly opens the story by revealing that she’s dead. She wants us to know she’s not as reckless as little sister Neave will shortly tell us, even though the narrative counterpoint between the siblings soon makes it clear that Lilly is dead because of her poor judgment about men. Neave initially takes us back to Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1936, when the bookish 11-year-old begins reading aloud to elderly, wealthy Mrs. Daniels. When she helps herself to a book from the shelf her employer has told her to stay away from until she’s less young and impressionable, Neave discovers the addictive pleasures of romance fiction. The Pirate Lover adds a third narrative strand with its tale of inevitably young, inevitably gorgeous, inevitably poor Electra, who is in danger of being married off by her mother to a wealthy nobleman in the glittering Paris of the vaguely Napoleonic period favored by romance writers. Pywell knows the genre conventions, but she tweaks them to paint a very dark picture of male-female relationships (the nobleman is an out-and-out sadist) reinforced by Lilly’s checkered marital career (second husband Ricky is particularly scary). Male menace is countered by female empowerment as the sisters build Be Your Best cosmetics to provide an income and self-respect for the women who sell its products. The plot verges on zany—don’t even ask about the dead dog—but Pywell also crafts mounting suspense that overwhelms any readerly skepticism. And thank goodness her tough, unsentimental take on sexual and familial power dynamics is softened by the fortuitous arrival of decent men for both Electra and Neave.
Smart, funny, and compulsively readable: this one may finally win the underrecognized author the wider audience her talent deserves.