Monday, November 28, 2022

Susan Meissner - The Nature of Fragile Things

Sophie Whalen is a young Irish immigrant so desperate to get out of a New York tenement that she answers a mail-order bride ad and agrees to marry a man she knows nothing about. San Francisco widower Martin Hocking proves to be as aloof as he is mesmerizingly handsome. Sophie quickly develops deep affection for Kat, Martin's silent five-year-old daughter, but Martin's odd behavior leaves her with the uneasy feeling that something about her newfound situation isn't right.
Then one early-spring evening, a stranger at the door sets in motion a transforming chain of events. Sophie discovers hidden ties to two other women. The first, pretty and pregnant, is standing on her doorstep. The second is hundreds of miles away in the American Southwest, grieving the loss of everything she once loved.
The fates of these three women intertwine on the eve of the devastating earthquake, thrusting them onto a perilous journey that will test their resiliency and resolve and, ultimately, their belief that love can overcome fear.

Comment: I've added this one to my TBR after reading some positive comments somewhere. But I must have inferred some kind of vibe from that and, along with the blurb, I made assumptions. I agree the story is fascinating but it didn't go the path I imagined (historical fiction with some romance even if secondary).

In this book we meet Sophie Whalen, a young woman, from Irish origins, now another one of the many emigrants in New York. When a chance advertisement requesting a mail order bride comes her way, she decides to take a rick and replies. The day she finally meets her groom Martin, they are married and she is eager to start her new life, as well as being a other to Kat, Martin's five year old daughter. They agree on taking things slowly in their marriage but while Sophie quickly gets used to her routines, if not her slight loneliness, she starts being curious about Martin's weird behavior. Then, one day, a stranger arrives at her door and everything changes...

This was a very intriguing novel, with mystery and a certain doom vibe, as if something could go wrong at any time. I think the set up and the slow pace at first really made for a curious reading because one gets aware something will happen at some point, especially considering the story starts with Sophie being interviewed by a US Marshal, so we know something must have happened. However, the tone of the book felt rather flat to me: this vibe of something to happen goes on, even when we learn about secrets, and the end didn't win me over.

I must say my expectations weren't right, I must have read the blurb wrong because I thought the story would be way more focused on the "mail order bride" idea and perhaps a possible romance somehow. I thought the story would be about Sophie adjusting to her new marriage or, I also imagined this might fail, how would she be a mother to Kat and eventually meet someone else while dealing with her past and loss or whatever. I mean, I confess I create this whole plot in my head and, it turned out, this book was nothing alike any of my ideas. This is the first book I try by the author so I had no idea of her style, but I see now that the focus is definitely more on the plot's tone rather than the character's path.

Once I regulated my expectations that this would not have romance content, I was able to savor the story more but, again, an issue for me: the story is narrated by Sophie, we are told she has secrets which we don't know right away, just a clue here, a clue there, but her "voice" is very monotone. I see some readers praising her value and dedication and efforts and so on, but once we learn all there is to know about Sophie, while I can respect her decisions, after what happened to her, I still didn't consider her to be such a likable character. Her personality just didn't read as approachable to me, no matter her actions and words.

I also think the plot's structure wasn't the best choice. We get to know/guess the big mystery early on and what happens after, especially related to the earthquake, while historically interesting, didn't convince me of the supposed need to rush over certain situations. Things happened and were written in a way I would feel sympathetic to the characters and what they faced, but to be fair I was still a little stuck on the mystery's reveal and how things played out. I thought the whole plot, in its attempt to keep up the suspense vibe (and failing after a certain point) just lost steam and when we finally reach the part of the story at the end, where we learn about Sophie's secrets, I admit I was ready to have this story finished.

I can understand why so many readers loved this one but to me this was a missed opportunity for something great. I feel the author didn't risk enough, or to make this a heartfelt historical romance or an unputdownable suspense plot, but the mix of the two, historical fiction and suspense just didn't convince me. Plus, since Sophie's voice was so steady I didn't feel the story really played with my emotions and I felt pretty much the same throughout the read, things weren't done with enough emotion, making this a well written story but not truly engaging to me.

Between my own failed and unfair expectations, it's true, and the lack of emotions I thought would be key in this book, the story just didn't work out for me as it was intended. It's correct, has the necessary elements but the execution truly disappointed me. I will try something else by the author one day to compare, but right now I feel a little discouraged.
Grade: 6/10

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