Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: In Need of a Good Wife

Author: Kelly O’Connor McNees
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Publisher: Berkley Trade

Richly detailed, vivid, and unforgettable, this is an extraordinary novel about three women challenging the American West—and unpredictable fate—for a future only the most daring can secure…

For Clara Bixby, brokering mail-order brides is a golden business opportunity—and a desperately needed chance to start again. If she can help New York women find husbands in a far-off Nebraska town, she can build an independent new life away from her own loss and grief.

Clara’s ambitions are shared by two other women, who are also willing to take any risk. Quiet immigrant Elsa hopes to escape her life of servitude and at last shape her own destiny. And Rowena, the willful, impoverished heiress, jumps at the chance to marry a humble stranger and repay a heartbreaking debt. All three struggle to find their true place in the world, leaving behind who they were in order to lay claim to the person they want to be. Along the way, each must face unexpected obstacles and dangerous choices, but they also help to forge a nation unlike any that came before.

“William Street was crowded with carriages and market carts. Men with broad shoulders hoisted wooden crates and shouted to each other as they carried them down the stairs to the cellars below the shops. In front of Libby’s a bevy of dancing girls gossiped and pointed at a man across the street who tipped his hat low and scurried around the corner, hoping no one would see him. All the girls wore long red feathers in their hair that wavered in the breeze, and their makeup was thick and garish on their pocked skin. Clara walked a few blocks farther north than she usually did – she realized just how small the scope of her everyday life had become over the last few years. She turned left and walked up a quieter block toward the park. The few trees were red and gold, their leaves not yet ready to fall. The chill in the air made her rub her hands together, and she longed for something hot to drink.”- Paperback Copy pg. 17

Why the cursed, blinding plague of love was let loose on this world, I’ll never know, Clara thought as she watched him walk away.” – Paperback Copy pg. 123

“What was it about this place? She slept so deeply here it was unsettling. Back in the maid’s quarters at the Channings’, she heard all through the night the sounds of the big old house and people moving through it. There was the occasional bell, one of the children sick in the night or Mrs. Channing awake and wanting a cup of tea. People passed in the hall, talking. Even as she slept, the sounds kept her tethered to the walking world. It wasn’t a satisfying kind of sleep, but it was all Elsa had known for a very long time.” – Paperback Copy pg. 293
“Before they could eat the rest of her vegetables, Elsa dug up the remaining onions and carried them to the kitchen. She cleaned and sliced them thin enough to see the light through. On the board she mixed flour and water with a bit of oil, kneading it until the dough was smooth, then pressed it flat on the baking stone. She melted butter in the frying pan and cooked the onions on a very low fire until they were like caramels. When they were nearly done, she chopped two slices of bacon as thick as her finger and added them to the pan. She slid it into the brick oven. The sweet-salt smell filled the entire house. When it cooled a bit, she would spread the tangy quark cheese on top. She knew she should be outside helping Nit, but Elsa was determined to get Mr. Schreier out of bed, and this tart could make a dead man’s mouth water. Her Tante always claimed it had made at least three men fall in love with her.” – Paperback Copy pg. 316
“The Independence Day rain began with a sound Elsa had never heard the rain make: It began with a hiss. The first uncertain droplets evaporated before they even hit the rock hard ground, hot to the touch. The water vapor formed a kind of rolling fog over the prairie and when the air was saturated, the rain began to fall in earnest. It rang on the metal cistern out by the barn like a peal of church bells calling the people to worship.” – Paperback Copy pg. 358

This story is told from the viewpoints of three very different women who are all heading out west after the Civil War. The three women are as different as night and day. One is a war widow that took me a little while to warm up to, the next is a truly humble housekeeper and immigrant, and then we have Clara who hopes to earn a living arranging marriages out west and is leaving the great state of New York behind in the process. It truly was remarkable to see and hear the Wild, Wild West from the perspectives of these three women. I loved Clara and Elsa the best because of their good hearts and the humbleness that they so often expressed. Rowena, on the other hand, was complex, manipulative, and at times I did not like her. She balances out Clara and Elsa and adds just the topsy turvy twist that this novel needed.

The language in this book is almost like a lullaby at times. I tried to pick out a few examples of this in my quotes above. The descriptions are somewhat lyrical and have the ability to transport you to the setting, which is a whole other topic of interest. I would read this book again just to study McNees’ writing abilities. After reading certain paragraphs I found myself having to pause and go back, just pondering the scene I just read. With the beautiful lyrical speech comes well developed characters and character aspirations. The character development was just the unfolding of setting and circumstances: lyrical and beautiful! I love to read about food and one of my quotes above depicts Elsa, the housekeeper, caramelizing onions and it is just so melodic to read about. I don’t even like onions and I was so caught up in passages like this one.

The time period, location, and topic of the plot line all kept me interested throughout the entire book. I have never read anything about mail order brides and I don’t know why but it has always been something that I have had questions about. McNees does a wonderful job exploring this topic and the issues surrounding it within this novel, and her historical evidence and backdrop played into the plot very well. This book is not a romance novel, but it fits and you will be so wrapped up in the stories of these three women that romance will not even be on your mind. The journey through frontier life was enough to keep me satisfied. It is just such a cozy world with warm hearths and Elsa’s wonderful cooking. This book will make a wonderful Christmas present for anyone who loves life out West and this particular time period.

***A big thank you to the publishers at Berkley Trade for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review***

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