Monday, April 26, 2021

Martine Bailey - The Penny Heart

Sentenced to death for a simple confidence trick, Mary Jebb escapes the gallows ... but her reprieve is harsh: seven years in the unforgiving penal colony of Botany Bay. Yet Mary is determined not to be forgotten, sending two pennies, engraved with a promise, to the two men who sealed her fate.Timid artist Grace Moore jumps at the opportunity to marry handsome gentleman Michael Croxon - happy if only to get away from her drunken father. But when Grace takes on a new cook, the two penny heart love tokens reveal she is tied to a world she didn't know existed ... A world of deceit, double-crossing, revenge and murder.

Comment: This is the second book by author Martine Bailey that I try. I read my first book by her in 2016 and found it intriguing enough, with its mix of historical setting and mystery elements. I remember I had liked it enough but it took me all this time to read another simply because there are too may books in the way.

In this story we meet a cast of characters with secrets and wishes which will clash in a battle of wit and strange events. Things begin rather by chance when Mary Jebb, a young woman who has had bad luck in life despite going through it with as much acceptance as she can, is caught cheating two brothers and sentenced to death. Miraculously, she is saved by being deported to Australia along with other prisoners but she is able to send two penny hearts to those she feels are responsible for her fate. Years later, she is back to stage her revenge and for that she misleads, she deceives, she does what she can to trap others, including innocent and unaware Grace, who has the bad luck of marrying one of those men, not knowing she would be caught in the middle of a revenge plan...

I liked reading this book, more due to the constant need to know if things would end up well for the heroine than for the motivations of the "bad guys". This is a clever story by the author, well researched and with many details about how life was in the 18th century in the locations where the story is set. I think the whole vibe/atmosphere of the place was well achieved and it shows the author did pick interesting elements from all her research.

This was a fascinating read but at first it seemed things were a little confusing. The pace was slow and I confess I was not getting the idea of why Mary felt like getting revenge, I mean she goes though a lot of trouble, much more than what it seems at first, just to get something out of the men she felt tricked her into a sentence. For such a clever and determined woman, shouldn't she focus instead of getting as far as she could and start again somewhere else? It seems the author wanted to convey Mary's need to set the score straight and at the same time that she was getting a little mad, especially if we consider the things she went through but... not even on the very last page I was convinced of this. Therefore, it felt like she was doing these things for any real reason. I don't know, I felt there was some sort of lacking in the big picture.

Mary is a very complex character. Her life, like many other young girls at a time there was no such thing as "social services", was hard and wretched. I can see how that hardened her as she grew up and how her vision of life was colored by those who were around her. I suppose this could explain some of her actions and her need to own things but from her past, which she embraced out of necessity, to her plans to cause emotional harm to Grace, someone caught in the middle of Mary's plans, there's quite a gap and I still feel doubtful about that step. I guess Mary's experience in Australia was a factor but I don't think there's a consistent explanation for her jump from wanting revenge to accomplish those revenge plans.

The story is filled with twists and some were really surprising and that has kept me reading for certain, even when I thought I wish something definitive would happen. I was particularly anxious to see when Grace, the heroine, would finally start connecting the dots and realize what was wrong in her new married life. In some moments it felt like she would do something but Mary was there, in disguise, to act as confident and guide her away from certain actions. This was actually well done, so close to uncover the secret, so close to get away from a possible bad fate and until the end always caught in the trap again. The author knew what she was doing alright, but it was both a cause for adrenaline and frustration.

I'd say Grace and her husband Michael were pretty obvious on their personalities and traits. I should have known though, that something was intentional when we had Grace's chapters in her POV but never Michael's and Mary's were in third person. I was certainly not ready, not even close to understand how Michael was so fixed on things he didn't act differently before a point of no return but when we find out how he is placed in all this, I wasn't only surprised, I was actually flabbergasted at such an improbable reason but not impossible and what clever explanation it was.

So, while plans were being made, charterers were being driven into their path, the reader is kept hoping Grace will do something or see what's in front of her so she can escape and still be happy. I should say the story ends well, this is not a horror book, but what happens at the end is certainly weird. I'm not sure how I felt about the end as a whole... for such a clever story on human emotions and psyches  the end was a little...melodramatic and lacking the sort of closure I'd have preferred.

I was looking at what I wrote about the other book by the author I tried and I see my general impressions match what I felt about this one: the beginnings were confusing, the pace not always smooth but the plots and characters richly depicted and in the end of both I was left surprised but wishing something less vague had been explained about the whole story line. I'll see of one day I'll read the author's other books.
Grade: 7/10

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