Book review: historical and modern fiction that work well together

CAROLINE VANDREIL Sylvan Lake Municipal Library Director Sylvan Lake News Columnist

When I come across a book that I enjoy, I tend to immediately find all other books by that author and read those as well. For the next few weeks, if anyone wants me, I’ll be camped out on my couch reading novels by Susanna Kearsley.

Unless I’m at work, you know, working. (I don’t get to read at work, unlike the common misconception that all librarians do is sit around reading books, and shushing people. I don’t shush. I don’t get to read for pleasure at work, either. It’s a shame, really, all these books and I’m dealing with spreadsheets, human resources, grant funding and determining if the toilet not flushing would be a legitimate call to maintenance, or if the plunger should do the trick.)

A Desperate Fortune is the tale of two women: 21st century Sara, a computer programmer and amateur cryptologist with Asperger Syndrome and 18th century Mary Dundas, half-French and half-Scottish, who discovers that the adventurous life that she’s always wanted is far more frightening than she expected.

History writer Alistair Scott has hired Sara to go to France to decode the journal of Mary Dundas.

Alistair writes about the common people, not the royalty and political movers and shakers. This journal is unusual in that few who were not of noble birth kept journals back then. Even more intriguing is the fact that middle class Mary has felt the need to use encryption. The journal reveals far more than either Sara or Alistair expected.

Kearsley makes the switching point of view and time period work.

I strongly suspect it is because Sara works on the journal the way Kearsley writes: by going to the actual place she’s writing about and using multiple sources, including actual letters, to round out the real people who appear in the story.

Descriptions are thus more solid; characters more human. The storyline is engaging, entertaining and intriguing. Fact blends with fiction seamlessly.

When reading, don’t stop at the end, read through the section ‘about the characters’ for a continuation of the theme and the real lives of the characters outside of the novel.

One of the benefits of writing about the minor characters in history is the ability to attribute to them characteristics they may not have had, unlike the well-documented kings, queens and popes of the time.

Is anyone else annoyed when historical figures say or do something that you KNOW could not have happened that way, based on your history classes, personal research or whatever?

Or, you read one author and the person is totally different in the next book by another author? Gah! At least with minor historical figures you’d not have read about them before, so it’s like a clean slate for both the author and the reader.

Yet the research Kearsley does is obvious, and she admits to where she takes liberties. I appreciate that sort of honesty from authors. Fiction is fiction, but it still has to be believable.

Asperger Syndrome comes into play somewhat through Sara, but not as I was expecting it to.

I did an Internet search of symptoms of Asperger and was surprised to learn that I didn’t understand it as well as I had thought. Kearsley uses the syndrome to develop Sara; the first person narrative is clear, but initially feels slightly off-kilter.

That’s the reason why I went online and discovered that Sara was capable of a lot more than my prejudices had allowed. I learned something. I like that in a book.

Now I’m off to read another of Kearsley’s books after work.