Mother Daughter Traitor Spy
Susan Elia MacNeal
Bantam Books, 336 pages, $37.99
Inspired by a real-life mother-daughter spy duo, the fictional Violet and Veronica Grace move from New York to Los Angeles in June 1940 after Veronica graduates from Hunter College, dreaming of a career in journalism like her idol, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.
There they encounter homegrown Nazis and ardent anti-Semites including the fascist-sympathizing glamorous aviatrix Nora Ingle. Vi, a suffragist between the wars, is her daughter’s moral compass. The two go undercover working for FBI informants, understanding not only that democracy is in danger but also that by taking personal risks and going on the record with their observations there is something they can do to try to preserve it.
The rise of fascism at home resonates today in this riveting account that is a sobering reminder that the past is never past and that a healthy democracy depends on the active participation of its citizens.
Jacqueline in Paris
By Ann Mah
Mariner Books, 352 pages, $24.99
From 1949-1950 Jacqueline Bouvier spends her Vassar College junior year abroad studying at la Sorbonne, immersed in French language and culture. Her host, Comtesse de Renty, a former Resistance operative who survived capture and concentration camp imprisonment, has fallen on lean times. The city of light is still recovering from war, its citizens using ration cards and with limited access to fuel to heat their apartments.
It is a richly sentimental and political education for the future First Lady, who falls in love for the first time (with nascent novelist John Marquand) and embraces the need her host sisters Claude and Ghislaine have to engage in social justice, yearning to commit to something bigger than herself. In addition, she thrills at their intense passion for culture such as the willingness to debate the importance of literature, visual art and dance.
In beautiful prose with loving attention to detail Mah expertly evokes Jacqueline Bouvier’s heady year abroad, one that she later considered the happiest of her life.
The Marriage Portrait
By Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf Canada, 352 pages, $34.00
Inspired by the short life of Lucrezia de Medici depicted in Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” the novel opens in mid-16th century Italy in a remote lodge where the newly married teenage Lucrezia is dining alone with her husband Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. She believes he intends to kill her — and soon.
From there the narrative shifts back and forth to Lucrezia’s extraordinary childhood in Florence, a halcyon time when her father Cosimo provides her with a tutor from court artist Vasari’s studio to encourage her talent. Uninterested in matrimony, Lucrezia prefers to immerse herself in the natural world, painting immaculately detailed scenes and creatures.
However, when her affianced older sister Maria dies, Lucrezia is promised by her parents out of political expediency to the suave, enigmatic Alfonso in her place. Once married, it is her duty to produce an heir in a matter of urgency to shore up the Ferrara dynasty.
By imagining an alternative fate than history provided for Lucrezia, O’Farrell reclaims her story and in its telling makes language seem new, a portrait in words.
By Louisa Treger
Bloomsbury USA, 404 pages, $36.00
This engaging coming-of-age novel follows Elizabeth Jane “Pink” Cochrane from rural Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh to New York City where she arrives in 1887, eager to find work as a journalist under her pen name Nellie Bly.
Although she has written pieces previously for the Pittsburgh Dispatch about horrendous slum and factory conditions, Bly is unable to secure a job until she successfully pitches the New York World. She intends to go undercover at the women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island, pretending to be mad in order to tell the story from the inside.
For ten days Bly exposes herself to the torments and privation of her fellow prisoners, women who have been institutionalized as a result of poverty, religious mania, heartbreak, trauma, or simply because their husbands have tired of them. She copes with this horrific experience as she has with all other misfortunes in her life: she saves it up and writes it down, not only getting the scoop, but becoming it.
Vivid and written with compassion, Treger illumines Bly’s risky reporting that led to radical reform.
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