Bellewether, Susanna Kearsley
Published August 7, 2018
“The house, when I first saw it, seemed intent on guarding what it knew; but we all learned, by the end of it, that secrets aren’t such easy things to keep.”
It’s late summer, war is raging, and families are torn apart by divided loyalties and deadly secrets. In this complex and dangerous time, a young French Canadian lieutenant is captured and billeted with a Long Island family, an unwilling and unwelcome guest. As he begins to pitch in with the never-ending household tasks and farm chores, Jean-Philippe de Sabran finds himself drawn to the daughter of the house. Slowly, Lydia Wilde comes to lean on Jean-Philippe, true soldier and gentleman, until their lives become inextricably intertwined. Legend has it that the forbidden love between Jean-Philippe and Lydia ended tragically, but centuries later, the clues they left behind slowly unveil the true story.
Part history, part romance, and all kinds of magic, Susanna Kearsley’s latest masterpiece will draw you in and never let you go, even long after you’ve closed the last page.
Set in an eighteenth-century house on Long Island, Bellewether is told from three perspectives across two timelines. The Seven Years’/French and Indian War sections are narrated by a young colonial American woman, Lydia Wilde, as well as by a French-Canadian officer Jean-Philippe de Sabran. Lydia is grieving the loss of both her mother and her fiancé, who was killed in the war. When Jean-Philippe and another Canadian prisoner of war are billeted at the Wilde house, Lydia finds it difficult to hide her anger and disdain for these men she considers as the enemy. As time passes however, she begins to view Jean-Philippe not as the monster she has imagined, but instead as a kind and intelligent gentleman – and a rather dashing one at that. For his part, Jean-Philippe is smitten with Lydia from the start, but is not sure how to bridge the language and emotional barriers between them. Can there be such a thing as happy ever after for two people on opposing sides of this brutal war?
Meanwhile, the historical Wilde House is now a museum in the present day timeline. Charley Van Hoek has moved to Long Island to look after her teenaged niece after the death of her brother, having secured a job as the museum’s new curator. Working through her own grief, Charley develops a bit of an obsession with the house’s history and with the famous legend of a tragic love story between a young colonial woman and a French-Canadian officer. She sets out on a mission to both uncover the truth and to save the financially struggling museum. Along the way, she discovers a new community, a sense of belonging, and even a new romance.
Susanna Kearsley is one of my favorite historical fiction writers, so naturally I was beyond thrilled to receive an ARC of her newest novel. Once again, Kearsley vividly brings history to life. Bellewether is well-researched with descriptive writing and multi-dimensional characters. While I felt more emotionally invested in the historical timeline, I did love the museum setting in the modern storyline. It was such a clever and interesting way to connect the house (and its inhabitants) to both the past and the present. One of my favorite details of the book was the way in which Kearsley employed similar settings, themes, activities, or emotions across each alternating timeline. This cleverly highlighted the interconnectedness of these characters and their stories and allowed the chapters to flow nicely together.
The characters themselves all managed to capture my heart. Kearsley breathed life into each and every one of them; they felt like real people who became dear friends by the end of the novel. Her three narrators are presented as sympathetic, complex beings with a wide-range of emotions. I loved that Bellewether gives us a male protagonist as one of these narrators. The fact that we get to read Jean-Phillippe’s thoughts and perspectives in addition to Lydia’s made me even more invested in their love story. It also made me crush even harder on this swoon-worthy hero.
In comparison to Kearsley’s previous books, Bellewether is a fairly quiet novel. There is less drama and suspense and the stakes are never quite as high. Instead, the lovely characters and descriptive writing kept me engrossed until the final sentence. Kearsley left a few cards up her sleeve until the end, so there were still a couple of surprises. I would’ve enjoyed a bit more drama, but I didn’t mind the slower pace and more character driven focus. The ending did feel a tad rushed, although I suspect some of that feeling can be attributed to the fact that I simply hated to bid farewell to these characters.
Fans of Susanna Kearsley and/or well-written dual-timeline historical fiction are in for a treat with Bellewether. It’s an engrossing and romantic novel with vivid characters and an atmospheric setting. A quiet, gentle read that is perfect to curl up with when you feel like escaping from reality for a while. Bellewether is a sound vessel to carry you away to another shore.
**A huge thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the opportunity to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review**