Daniel Fallon had heard the family stories, handed down from generation to generation, about the great French writer François-René de Chateaubriand befriending his great-great-grandmother as a young girl. But it wasn’t until his father died, leaving Fallon two letters written in 1817, that oral family history suddenly became real, launching a genealogical mystery Fallon set out to solve. The result? Love’s Legacy: Viscount Chateaubriand and the Irish Girl, a book Kirkus Reviews calls “an engaging historical treasure hunt with some intriguing findings.” 

Fallon was in his father’s study the day of his funeral when those two letters—one signed by Chateaubriand, the other by his secretary, both recalling Mary Fallon fondly—fell out of a folder, launching a three-decade quest to determine Chateaubriand’s relationship with his family. “It’s all detective work,” the author says. “I did feel like I was writing a crime novel.”

With the help of a genealogist in London and existing material about Chateaubriand, Fallon began chipping away at the family story, starting with young Mary, about 12 years old and living in London in the 1790s, who befriended the down-on-his-luck Chateaubriand, who would have been in his early 20s. Chateaubriand lived with Mary’s family for a time, and they later parted ways until Mary was a young woman. 

Though Fallon is a retired academic, holding the title of professor emeritus at the School of Public Policy and the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland, he writes in an accessible way with a sly sense of humor, as evidenced in this passage:

Some years later Mary blossomed into the loveliest young woman in the city, as girls often do in family tales. An Irishman named Patrick Fallon courted her, swept her off her feet, and married her. Shortly thereafter a son was born, whom they named Thomas. 

Though the nature of Chateaubriand’s relationship with Mary and connection to Thomas are never clearly determined, it’s Thomas who quickly becomes the focal point of Love’s Legacy, as Chateaubriand offers to pay for the young man to attend the prestigious Collège Royal of Amiens, France. 

“The interesting thing is that Chateaubriand was bankrupt during that time, and it happened to be a real moment in his life when there was no money coming in,” Fallon says. “He stopped payment on all of his debts. The only thing he paid was the tuition and board for this boy.”

Why did Chateaubriand do this? What was his real connection to Mary? Was Thomas actually his child? The author wrestles with all of these questions. 

Fallon worked with a genealogist in London and also made trips to London himself. “My wife and I moved to Santa Fe in 2010, and it’s after that that I began writing in earnest,” he says. “Even now, I’m still in the process of trying to track some things down.”

Once he decided Love’s Legacy might be a book, he established a regular writing routine. “I write a certain number of hours per day,” he says. “Some [of the] writing was easier than other [parts].” The most challenging, the author says, was the chapter on Chateaubriand himself. “There are people who have written big, fat books on this guy, and some fairly recently,” Fallon says. “But he’s virtually unknown in the U.S. I felt like I needed to convey who he was in a way that meshed with the story and also did justice to his life. Then I had to wrestle with his reputation and who he was as a person.”

The result? A complete biography within the book. Classrooms could very well use Fallon’s chapter on Chateaubriand to study the French author.

When it came to publishing Love’s Legacy, though, it was a tough sell. “I could not find a publisher,” Fallon says. “There were two primary reasons. First, it didn’t fit a genre. It has four genres—detective story, memoir, biography, and genealogical investigation. Second, its length. It’s more like a novella. So the idea of taking a flyer on something that was relatively small and didn’t fit a genre was a heavy lift.” 

Instead, Fallon published Love’s Legacy himself. The book has earned a number of awards, including NYC Big Book Award for best cover, Southwest Book Design and Production Award for both best trade book and best history book, and a gold medal for best genealogical memoir at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Now 84, Fallon says he will probably begin working on updating the autobiography of his father, who became an engineer midcareer and ended up an executive at RCA.

Not surprisingly, the author says his reading habits lean toward “history and historical documents that tend to shed light on who we are and where we come from” as well as well-written memoirs. He recently read My Father’s Wake by Kevin Toolis and Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice.

Fallon also plans to continue pursuing unanswered questions in the Chateaubriand story, one he says became less and less about a family love story and more about a man’s effect on generations with one act, his gift of a first-class education for Thomas, a promise he’d made to the boy’s mother. In the end, that generous act led to success not just for Thomas, but for future generations.

“Everyone in my family has been well educated, and that’s when it started,” Fallon says. “It’s really astonishing that a single act like that can have an impact 200 years later.”

Alec Harvey, former president of the Society for Features Journalism, is a freelance writer based in Alabama.