Susanna Kearsley is back with a new novel, doing what she does best — telling a rich historical tale framed by a parallel contemporary story. In A Desperate Fortune, we follow two compelling stories which share some common themes and complement each other quite nicely.
In the contemporary story, we meet 30-year-old Sara Thomas, a computer programmer with Asperger’s syndrome who relies on Sudoku puzzles to stay calm in challenging situations. Sara dabbles as an amateur code-breaker, and when her cousin Jacqui, a successful publisher, enlists Sara to help an author decode a centuries-old diary written in cipher, Sara is thrust into both an historical mystery and a present-day romance.
Sara’s project is deciphering the diary of Mary Dundas, a young Scottish woman living in France in the 1730s and the daughter of a Jacobite loyalist. Mary’s life is quite ordinary until her long estranged brother draws her into an entirely new life. An important Jacobite ally needs to be hidden, and as part of his false identity, Mary is sent to pose as his sister in order to maintain the subterfuge needed for his escape. Suddenly, Mary is thrust into a world of secrets and danger, as she accompanies the slippery Mr. Thomson and his silent escort, the Highlander Hugh MacPherson, as they flee Paris and try to elude pursuit.
Much of Mary’s story is one of flight, as the small group seems to always be one step ahead of danger, constantly hiding and creating new cover stories to explain who they are and where they’re going. As they travel, Mary entertains the various people met along the way with her imaginative fables and fairy tales. As the author shows us, women of that time were not taken seriously as literary contributors, and yet managed in their own subversive way to create their own form of narratives through fairy tales such as these.
Naturally, Mary and the mysterious MacPherson form a connection, and her initial fear of him grows into something much, much more.
In the present day, as Sara works her way through Mary’s secret diary, she begins to understand more of her own nature and to question the assumptions she’s always held about herself. She’s always believed herself to be incapable of sustaining a relationship, but as she begins to know a kind man named Luc and his eager and adorable son Noah, Sara realizes that more may be possible in her own life than she’d ever dared to dream.
So what did I think of A Desperate Fortune? Let’s start with the positive: Susanna Kearsley is a meticulous researcher, and it’s always startling to read the afterwords to her books and find out how much of her fictional worlds are rooted in documented historical fact. It’s fascinating to find out how the history of King James VIII’s court in exile, Jacobite sympathizers in Spain and Russia, and a major London financial scandal in the 1730s became pieces of the fabric of this fictional creation.
Mary is an interesting and sympathetic character, as is Sara, her modern-day counterpart. I enjoyed the parallels in their stories, as two talented young women claim their own lives and find their own way toward a happiness that had previously seemed unattainable. In both halves of the story, a woman who considered herself unlovable and unremarkable discovers that with the right person, love is not only possible but is life-altering in all the best ways.
Also wonderful is the concept of women using their talents in unconventional ways, with Mary’s storytelling forming a crucial element in her group’s adventures on the road and Sara’s talent for codes and ciphers taking her into new opportunities that she’d never expected.
However… and this is a big “however”: There was something just a little bit dull about large swaths of the story. Mary’s story takes an awfully long time to develop any sense of excitement, and perhaps that’s because the stakes aren’t always clear. Mr. Thomson, whose escape she’s a part of, is not a heroic or admirable character, and his backstory, once explained, is mired in a stock fraud scandal that just isn’t very interesting to read about. Why are King James’s followers so keen on protecting this man and getting him safely to Rome? His importance seems odd (although, apparently, historically accurate — Mr. Thomson is a real historical figure and his role in the scandal is every bit as confused in the historical record as it is in this story). Because Mary’s mission is all rather nebulous, it lacks a certain nobility of mission to make it seem worthwhile. There are exciting moments of risk and outright danger, but it’s not until the romantic elements come more into the foreground of the story that it really becomes compelling and emotionally rich.
Likewise, Sara’s story is interesting, but the pacing feels a bit off. Her Asperger’s seems to come and go as a plot point, and I’d have liked to know more about Sara’s earlier life and challenges up to this point in order to understand the emotional baggage she carries with her. Her love story is sweet, but rather sudden — and yet it’s also fairly predictable. Luc is the only man she interacts with, he lives next door, he’s super attractive, and is a perfect gentleman as well as a lovely father and friend. Of course they’re going to fall in love; it’s sweet, but not particularly surprising.
I feel somewhat disloyal giving A Desperate Fortune anything but an absolutely stellar review. I’m a big fan of Susanna Kearsley’s books, and I’ve read almost all of them by now. A few are among my all-time favorite books (The Winter Sea, The Firebird, Mariana), and even the ones that aren’t quite my favorites are still quite good and are books that I’d have no problem recommending.
Given all of that, I’d say that A Desperate Fortune falls among the second-best set of Susanna Kearsley books for me. It lacks the compelling, tragic, dramatic momentum that’s on display so spectacularly in the books I consider her best — and yet, it’s still a really good book that is sure to interest fans of historical fiction, particularly those with an interest in the 1700s and the Jacobites.
Title: A Desperate Fortune
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: April 7, 2015
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Conteporary/Historical fiction