This book is set in 1890, a time in which roles for well-bred women could be described as getting married to the best possible socioeconomic “prospect,” then tending to their drawing rooms, dinner parties, gardens, and dogs. Women didn’t get to be reporters, as 17-year-old Josephine (“Jo”) Montfort wanted to be, or anything else, for that matter. As her uncle told her, “A woman’s entire happiness depends on her marriage….” Moreover, a marriage was a business transaction; “Passion is for the lower orders….”
Jo chafed at these restrictions, longing to go out into the world and make a difference, like the famous woman reporter Nelly Bly. She declares to her friend Trudy: “I’m not a spaniel! and I don’t want my whole life to be about . . . breeding!”
Trudy, oblivious, replies: “It won’t be, silly girl. There will also be parties and outings. Wallpaper. China patterns. And upholstery.”
As the story begins, Jo is working on the newspaper at her finishing school, struggling to get something included besides insipid articles, when she has to leave upon learning that her beloved father has died from an apparent accident while cleaning his gun. She is devastated, but not for the same reasons as the reigning matriarch of the Aldrich clan, who was looking for a quick wedding between her 20-year-old grandson Abraham (“Bram”) and Jo, so they could start producing offspring. Jo “loves” Bram; he is a good and honorable person. But her feelings for him are more akin to feelings for a brother or cousin than for someone she might fancy. But the sort of romance found in books didn’t seem to be in the cards for someone of her background.
Jo’s father, Charles Montfort, and his older brother Phillip had been partners in Van Houten Shipping along with four other men, and also had a city newspaper, “The Standard”. Her father’s stake in these businesses were to be sold along with some other bequests he made in his will. When Jo takes one of those items over to The Standard’s editor, she overhears a handsome young news reporter named Eddie Gallagher say that her father did not in fact have an accident, but committed suicide. Jo confronts her uncle, and he admits it was true, but Jo has trouble believing it. She asks Eddie to help her find out why her father would do such a thing, and he takes her to meet his friend Oscar Rubin, a budding forensic scientist at the morgue. Oscar informs them that Charles Montfort neither had an accident or took his own life; he was murdered.
Thereafter, Jo plunges herself into a murder investigation, with Eddie at her side, along with help from his friends Oscar and others from his world she meets, such as a cynical pickpocket of around her own age, Fay, who soon becomes her truest friend. Jo learns that outside of the “better” side of town, many people are goodhearted and honest, even though they can barely find enough money to eat or feed their children.
And there is something else: Eddie and Jo, thrown together so often, soon find themselves interacting physically, and Jo discovers what it is to feel desperate for someone’s touch and for his kisses: “She felt like a fairy-tale princess woken by a kiss to a new world, new people, new emotions.”
She knows that Bram would never make her feel like that, and never let her share his world, as Eddie did; it would be too “scandalous.”
But even as she struggles with her emotions, and the seeming impossibility of there ever being a chance for her and Eddie to be together, the two of them dig deeper (literally, in one instance) into the details of the case, especially after the murders start to pile up. Before long, even Eddie and Jo themselves are threatened with their lives.
Discussion: As usual, Donnelly backs up her historical fiction with impressive research and insight. She also creates yet another spectacular female role model in Jo.
Evaluation: Even though I figured out from the start what was happening in the plot, it made only the slightest dent in my enjoyment of the story. Jennifer Donnelly is excellent at historical fiction and characterization, and I love her work. I dearly hope there will be a sequel to this book!
Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015