Book Review: Mariana

Book Review: Mariana by Susanna Kearsley

The newest cover. My favorite.

Julia Beckett is an independent woman of 30, living in London and succeeding professionally as an illustrator of children’s books. Since childhood, Julia has felt a strange calling to a house in the rural English town of Exbury, and when she happens to pass by the house once again as an adult, fate intervenes. The house is for sale, Julia’s recent inheritance means that she has the wherewithal to make a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and voila! Julia is now the owner of the lovely but mysterious Greywethers.

Uprooting her London life, Julia settles in and is immediately welcomed by the locals, especially the friendly pub owner Vivien, the lord of the nearby manor, Geoffrey de Mornay, and Geoff’s best friend Iain. As she adjusts to her new surroundings, Julia begins to see a dark man on a gray horse at the edges of her property, and that’s just the beginning of strange occurrences.

Soon, Julia begins to have momentary lapses in which she slips through time.

It is difficult to describe the sensation of sliding backwards in time, of exchanging one reality for another that is just as real, just as tangible, just as familiar. I should not, perhaps, refer to it as “sliding,” since in actual fact I was thrust — abruptly and without warning — from one time to the next, as though I had walked through some shifting, invisible portal dividing the present from the past.

When she enters this alternate world, it is as a young woman named Mariana, and the time is the mid-17th century.  As Mariana, Julia relives key events from the other woman’s life, and during those spells knows no other reality – she is, in fact, Mariana. When she returns to herself, Julia remembers what she has experienced as Mariana, but cannot understand why she slips into the past or how these episodes are relevant to her own life.

With the help of her brother Tom, Julia comes to believe that she is Mariana reincarnated, destined for some as-yet-undiscovered purpose related to Mariana’s life. As Julia digs deeper, she comes to understand the love and sorrows that Mariana experienced, and must find a way to live in the present when the past holds so much that tempts her.

I’ll just come right out and say that I love the writing in Mariana. Lush and romantic, Susanna Kearsley’s writing captures the small moments and glances that build to deeper connections and passions. Rustic village life is conveyed in all its quaint charm, and yet the 1600s version of the same village is dark and mistrustful, full of superstition, plotting, and deception. As Julia explores the town, I could practically see the gardens and streams come to life, and would have liked nothing more than to wander the country lanes with her and explore the old manor house and its magnificent library.

As I read Mariana, I became enthralled by the mystery of Mariana’s past and how it could possibly intersect with Julia’s present. The alternating timeframes were so engaging that I never wanted either one to end. By the end of the book, I was completely hooked on the central romance and (without giving anything away here) felt keenly Mariana’s joys and sorrows.

My only quibble with the book is that Julia and Tom arrive at an explanation for Julia’s time slips almost immediately, never question their explanation, and indeed are proven correct pretty much off the bat, with no alternate theories or trial and error. I understand that investigating the cause of the timeslips isn’t really the point here, but it felt a bit too neat to me.

Other than that, there isn’t much that I would change about Mariana. The pace is lively, but with enough suspense and dramatic timing to keep me coming back for more. There’s a sense of impending tragedy – something must have happened to cause Mariana to need to come back across the centuries to find resolution and peace. I especially loved the main plot twist that occurs in Mariana – but again, not wanting to enter spoiler territory, I won’t say what the twist is or when it occurs.

Mariana was first published in 1994 and has been reissued several times since. Call me shallow, but what originally drew me to Susanna Kearsley’s books was the newest set of covers. I was hooked as soon as I saw The Winter Sea on a bookstore shelf, had to have it, and have since snapped up several others. Although Mariana has had several covers since its original publication, the current cover, with its sense of sensual, moody introspection, is the one that really captures the feel of the book for me.

Really, how could you not fall in love with these covers?

I’ve read two other Susanna Kearsley books, The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. Each involves some sort of time displacement or time slippage, each for difference reasons or using different mechanisms. In all three books, the heroine experiences something inexplicable in which she is thrust into another life or another timeline; she must figure out why it happens and what is expected of her. And of course, in each of the three books, true love – a deep, abiding love that knows no boundaries of time – is at the center of the plot. The romances at the heart of the author’s writings are desperate, lovely, dangerous affairs, and the passion is palpable.

What I also appreciate and enjoy in these books is the historical element. Without feeling like a history lesson, these books manage to convey a time and place gone by. They present the drama of the day’s events, politics, and social structures in a way that feels current and vibrant, with special emphasis on the role of women in these times and the choices (or lack of choices) available to them.

Mariana is a fine example of this type of journey to the past, combined with a contemporary woman’s search for identity and meaning, and as such, is both engaging as fiction and emotionally compelling as well.

I highly recommend Mariana to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, love stories, strong female characters… and simply gorgeous English countryside. An appreciation for dashing men on horseback wouldn’t hurt either.

I have another Susanna Kearsley book, The Shadowy Horses, all queued up and ready to go on my e-reader. As soon as I get over the emotional ups and downs of Mariana, I’ll be ready to dive right in.

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