Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

Night scene in dark blue, showing a tree reflected in a mirror pond with stars and gold swirls to evoke the feeling of magic.Why I read it:  I will read anything Susanna Kearsley writes.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  “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.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I adore Susanna Kearsley and love her books. I usually get kind of torn about a new SK book; I want to save it and savor it and I want to read it immediately and both of those things don’t really sit comfortably together. In the case of Bellewether, I was having one of those weeks where I didn’t have a lot of time to read so that forced me to read more slowly than I usually would have otherwise, which meant I was able to savor the language and let the words and the story sink into my bones.

I didn’t really  know much about the book going in. I assumed it was a time travel/time slip book and so I spent a bit of time wondering whether Charley was going to walk through a door in the Wilde House and find herself in 1759 – but it isn’t a time slip book. It’s a ghost book. Charley is a museum curator, looking to unearth the history of the Wilde House where she is preparing for the various exhibits which will be on display once the renovation/restoration work is complete and the museum officially opens. She is researching, in particular, the ghost story/tragic fairy tale of Lydia Wilde and her French soldier. The legend goes that Lydia and the French soldier fell in love and were about to run away together when he was shot by her brother. Lydia later drowned herself rather than be without her love. It is said the ghost of the French soldier inhabits the house and the local woods, searching for Lydia, to lead her to the boat which will take them away together.

The truth is much more than that and the story unfolds in parallel arcs, one in the present day from Charley’s point of view and one in 1759/60 from both Lydia’s and Jean-Philippe’s POV. The transitions from each time period are clever and linked. For example, there might be a reference to a storm coming and the next section picks up with a storm to bridge that time gap. Each transition is different but each one is paired.

The book is only about 320ish pages long. I would happily have read much more about these characters. There was a lot more I wanted to know about all of them. About Charley and Sam, the contractor who is heading up the restoration work on Wilde House, about Lydia and Jean-Philippe, about Benjamin Wilde (who went on to become a famous dashing privateer, about Zebulon, Lydia’s father, about Joseph, Lydia’s other brother who resides at Wilde House, about Violet, the slave who resides at Wilde House in 1759 – she’s treated as a free woman by Lydia and her family but the tragic reality is that she is the property of Reuben Wilde (Zebulon’s brother), and only “leased” (like a rental car for God’s sake) to the Snug Cove Wilde’s for a fee. I could have stayed sunk into the musicality of the writing, which played a kind of melancholic serenade and kept me entranced. What is there is good but I can’t help but feel there were things missing. I wanted more of Lydia and Jean-Philippe falling in love. I definitely wanted more of Sam and Charley. I wanted to know more about Rachel (Charley’s niece) and whether she ever went out with the sexy Gianni from next door. I didn’t think the subplot about Charley’s grandmother was at all detailed enough. It felt too easy and underdone.

As soon as I “met” Sam I knew who he was, because:

“I’m Charlotte Van Hoek. Everyone calls me Charley.”
“What do you like to be called?”
“Charley, actually.” I was surprised he would ask me. No one ever had before. It made me take a better look at him.

I felt that I knew more about Jean-Philippe because I had his POV. Sam was far more opaque. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. I was curious about his relationship with Charley’s grandmother. I had the feeling as I was reading that there was so much more to know and I was only able to glimpse certain portions of it.

The resolution of the book will please romance readers but it is not precisely a romance novel. There are hard things covered and they cast their shadows over the novel. Slavery, genocide, the stolen generation of Canada, grief and loss (Charley is only in Snug Cove due to the death of her beloved brother and the Wilde family are still reeling from the death of Patience Wilde the year before) and PTSD.

Bellewether invites the reader close, to listen carefully and patiently. It’s not an instant gratification kind of book. It’s not fast-paced action. It’s quiet and considered and soft and sad – and there is beauty and charm in it.

What else? Bellewether isn’t my favourite of Susanna Kearsley’s books. That would still be The Winter Sea (aka Sophia’s Secret) – which is far more detailed and made me feel like I knew most of the story – or, at least, enough. With this book, I felt like I’d only really scratched the surface and there are so many more things I want to know. The lack of knowledge is kind of haunting actually, like the echo of that musicality I spoke of earlier. Perhaps that was deliberate. It is indeed a ghost story, after all and the characters are lingering with me still, not quite giving up all of their secrets.

“My grandmother,” he told me, “had a theory about doors. Whenever things were going wrong, she’d have my stepdad come hang a new door for her. He’d tell her she was nuts, that doors were doors, but she’d say no door ever opened exactly the same as the last one, the new one was always that little bit different, and anyway it never did any harm to walk through a new door now and then, and see where you end up.”

Grade: B

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2 comments on “Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

  1. Marg

    I haven’t read this yet. Of course, I will, but I have seen lots of reviews where people weren’t as pleased with this one as they have been with previous books.

  2. Kaetrin

    All of her books are good but I don’t think this is her best.

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