Book Review: Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

 

Some houses seem to want to hold their secrets.

It’s 1759 and the world is at war, pulling the North American colonies of Britain and France into the conflict. The times are complicated, as are the loyalties of many New York merchants who have secretly been trading with the French for years, defying Britain’s colonial laws in a game growing ever more treacherous.

When captured French officers are brought to Long Island to be billeted in private homes on their parole of honour, it upends the lives of the Wilde family—deeply involved in the treasonous trade and already divided by war.

Lydia Wilde, struggling to keep the peace in her fracturing family following her mother’s death, has little time or kindness to spare for her unwanted guests. French-Canadian lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran has little desire to be there. But by the war’s end they’ll both learn love, honour, and duty can form tangled bonds that are not broken easily.

Their doomed romance becomes a local legend, told and re-told through the years until the present day, when conflict of a different kind brings Charley Van Hoek to Long Island to be the new curator of the Wilde House Museum.

Charley doesn’t believe in ghosts. But as she starts to delve into the history of Lydia and her French officer, it becomes clear that the Wilde House holds more than just secrets, and Charley discovers the legend might not have been telling the whole story…or the whole truth.

Belleweather starts slowly, layering modern-day chapters with chapters from Lydia’s and Jean-Philippe’s perspectives. It’s masterfully done, like building a gorgeous home from the foundation upward. The early stages may seem like a lot of getting ready, but as the story builds, the pieces all come together to make an impressive whole.

We’re told from the outset that the Wilde House has a long, tangled history, going back centuries through generations of Wildes, who settled, married, bore and lost children, and over time expanded the original Colonial footprint of the house to include a Victorian wing. We also learn early on that the house may be haunted. When Charley accepts a job as curator for the Wilde House Museum, currently under renovation, one of the first stories she hears is the legend of a doomed love between a Wilde daughter and a French officer staying in the family home as a prisoner during the French and Indian War.

Charley is naturally charmed and intrigued by the tale — but the mission of the museum is supposed to be on Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Wilde. The stuffier members of the board of directors are not crazy about Charley anyway, and they refuse to expand their view of the musem’s purpose to include anything about this mysterious ghost story, despite the fact that over the years it’s become a favorite local legend, so much so that the woods around the museum have become a favorite Halloween destination for people wanting a chance at a ghost sighting.

Charley begins to dig through the old records to discover proof to back up the ghost story, and meanwhile, we hear from Lydia and Jean-Philippe about how they met, what conditions were like for them on the farm, and how family dynamics — especially conflicts with another French officer and Lydia’s brothers — seemed to make any future between the two utterly impossible.

Within the contemporary pieces of the story, we also learn more about Charley’s own family tragedies, including a long estrangement from her grandmother, the loss of her brother, her care for her young adult niece, and naturally, Charley’s own romantic frustrations and dreams. On top of that, there’s a particularly difficult and entitled set of board members to be dealt with, and lots of influential people with demands that can’t be ignored.

To be honest, I had my doubts at the beginning. The start is slow, and particularly in Charley’s chapters, there’s a lot of exposition up front, and tons of minor characters’ names to learn and remember. I was much more captivated by Lydia and Jean-Philippe from the start. Because we’re told the outlines of the ghost story at the beginning, we read about these two characters assuming we know where their story is going and wondering about the how and why — but the way it all comes together is both surprising and carefully built up to. I was very satisfied with the resolution, both of the contemporary and historical pieces of the story,

Overall, I enjoyed Bellewether very much, although I felt that certain of the emotional/family dynamics and complications in Charley’s part of the story were rushed. The storyline with her grandmother, in particular, needed a little more room to breathe and develop in order to have the intended emotional impact, and I thought the niece’s grief and healing was given a rather speedy treatment as well.

Still, as a whole, Bellewether is a great read, and by the second half, I just couldn’t put it down. Susanna Kearsley is a master of emotional, complex stories with historical elements that usually come with some sort of secretive or supernatural mysteries. Bellewether is a stand-alone that makes a great introduction to the author’s style and quality of writing, and for those who already love her works, you won’t be disappointed!

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A note on editions: The cover above belongs to the paperback edition released in Canada in April 2018, which I purchased via Amazon Canada prior to receiving an ARC via NetGalley. The US edition, releasing this coming week (August 7th), has a cover that, while nice, doesn’t match my existing collection of Susanna Kearsley books — and I’m enough of a fan and a completist that I just had to have that gorgeous Canadian cover!

Here’s the US cover:

And here’s a look at some of my other Susanna Kearsley books — which may help explain why I needed that particular cover:

 

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The details:

Title: Bellewether
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: August 7, 2018
Length: 414 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: NetGalley (also purchased)

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