Book review: ‘The Debutante’ by Kathleen Tessaro

An old English estate provides the backdrop for romance, mystery and loss for artist Cate Albion and Jack Coates, hired to make their way through Endsleigh House in Devon and appraise its contents for sale. Cate is fresh from New York and still smarting from a break-up; Jack is quiet, reserved, and lost in his own grief.

As they make their way through the grand but fading Endsleigh House, Cate discovers something unusual: an old shoe box still in remarkable condition, and containing items that were obvious treasures at one time. Intrigued by the Tiffany bracelet, dancing shoes, old photograph (of a young sailor), diamond brooch and dance card, Cate sets about discovering how and why these belongings were left behind by Irene Blythe, the former owner of Endsleigh. Irene has passed away; the estate is maintained only by Jo Williams, the cook and housekeeper. And Cate isn’t going to stop until she gets some answers . . . about her own love life, about Jack, about the mysterious Blythe sisters — debutantes in London society during the 1930s. About everything.

Kathleen Tessaro’s The Debutante is an enchanting novel alternating between present-day England and pre-war London, a time of optimism before World War II robbed the nation of its security and joy. It’s told between a modern narrative following Cate and a series of letters between Irene, the pragmatic older Blythe daughter, and “Baby,” the beautiful but dangerous younger debutante. As Cate delves deeper into what could have become of Baby, missing and rarely spoken of, she begins to confront what sent her scurrying from New York herself. And the answers are never easy.

I read Kathleen Tessaro’s Innocence several years ago and really enjoyed her writing style. Liquid and familiar, her words tend to draw you immediately into the fray and do an excellent job of setting the stage. At the onset, we’re catapulted into modern-day London before zooming our way to Endsleigh in Jack’s convertible — and Tessaro’s writing is such that I could feel the wind whipping through my hair. It’s easy to be drawn into the scenes she creates, and that’s what I enjoyed best about this one.

Jack and Cate’s relationship developed slowly, though I can’t say I always found it believable. Their “witty banter” often seemed forced; their exchanges disingenuous. While initially attracted to one another, there didn’t seem to be a prolonged period in which they actually talked. About life, love — anything. It was all this wandering about Endsleigh, then working to solve the mysteries before them. They worked well together as a pair, as much as they seemed to irk each other at points, and Cate’s aunt Rachel — Jack’s employer — added some levity to the tension between them. And when that tension eventually gave way to what we all saw coming, I did finally buy it.

The Debutante worked as contemporary fiction tinged with historical details — and the letters between Irene and Baby provided an enchanting look at the trials, difficulties, triumphs and aches of these two sisters. As many have said before (myself included), letter-writing as an art form was so delicate, so lovely . . . and it pains me that it’s being lost throughout the generations now. What was written and not written between the Blythe girls was fascinating, and I loved their exchanges and what a simple ” . . . ” could mean at the end of a thought. We’re losing that, I fear; and we shouldn’t. I hope ending a sentence with an ellipsis will continue to mean far more than I can say . . .

Don’t let the light-hearted pink cover fool you: this story has meat. Fans of historical fiction, British women’s fiction and stories of love and sisterly pains will find plenty to enjoy in The Debutante, a novel that flowed easily and kept me reading — both for the mystery and the love story. Those are usually some of my favorites.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061125784 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Booking Through Thursday: Hey, I like it!

booking_through_thursLet’s go Booking Through Thursday!

“What’s the best ‘worst’ book you’ve ever read — the one you like despite some negative reviews or features?”

As many readers have commented this week, this was a really hard question to answer! I did eventually find a choice by digging through my library on LibraryThing, though — Kathleen Tessaro’s Innocence, a book I reviewed back in November. The book has a whopping average score of 3.14 stars on LT — pretty low — with several 1-star and 2-star ratings in there, too. And I gave it a solid 4-star rating!

innocence_tessaroThe novel is the story of Evie Garlick, a young woman who moves from Ohio to London to try and carve out a place for herself in theatrical world. The big city isn’t anything like she expected, of course, and all sorts of chaos and adventures ensue. She falls in love with a really troubled guy and is “haunted” by the ghost of her old best friend, a wild and unpredictable young woman called Robbie. The book is all about Evie coming to terms with changing dreams and letting go of the past — not easy goals for anyone to accomplish.

Aside from the really mediocre scores the book has garnered on LibraryThing, one reviewer simply stated: “Terrible book. Wish I hadn’t bothered to read it.”

Oh, how I disagree! Sure, the book was a little whacky with the whole dead-best-friend-haunting thing, but I just recognized it for what it was — a trope, a way for Evie to reconnect with the life she lost — her old life — and begin anew in the present. Robbie’s “ghost” was the propellent for change. No problems there.

Plus, you know, I’m an Anglophile. The book is set in London. It has romance, intrigue, a pregnancy, first loves, surprise visits and some college life stuff in there. Sold!

Book review: ‘Innocence’ by Kathleen Tessaro

innocence_tessaroI picked up Kathleen Tessaro’s winning novel Innocence after being drawn in by the cover immediately — so classic, so beautiful! I wasn’t entirely sure how the iconic cover art would correspond to the novel, but I didn’t care: I was going for it.

Innocence is the story of Evie Garlick, a young woman who moves from Ohio to London to try and carve out a place for herself in theatrical world. She shares a room in the city with naive, tender-hearted Imogene and spirited New Yorker Robbie, all transplant actresses also attending her drama school — and growing up quickly in the process. Evie is a little “innocent,” of course — she arrives with a lot of preconceived notions about how her life is going to play out, including an eventual marriage to a small-town boy from back home. None of that quite works out, of course: Evie falls in love with a bohemian musician and drug addict and quickly finds herself having to make difficult choices. Love isn’t ever really enough — or is it?

Evie narrates the entire story, but we’re transplanted from the past to the present in each individual chapter. The novel plays out a bit like a play: we’re introduced to the principle cast in the beginning, go on small adventures with them, get a strong look at Evie’s life in the “present”: she’s now a drama teacher with a four-year-old son, Alex; she rents a room from Bunny, a benevolent older woman with a great appreciation for the arts; she shares a strange, sexually-charged friendship with pianist Piotr, but refuses to open up to him. Imogen, Robbie and Jake are all nowhere to found in this new world — it’s Evie and Alex against the world.

There’s an entire other subcontext in Innocence that appears pretty much from the get-go: Robbie, killed years earlier in a car accident in New York City, begins to appear before Evie’s own eyes, drinking tea, taunting her and imploring her to reevaluate her life. Evie begins to sort of accept Robbie’s “haunting” as a fact of life, though not one she much enjoys. She dishes all of her grief right back at her old best friend, trying to largely ignore Robbie’s attempts to get Evie to see what she gave up for her new life — and why.

The book, to me, was good — I was immediately drawn into the story, falling in step with Evie as she traverses London for the first time. As I constantly harp on about, I’m in love with England. I had no trouble at all jumping into the city and Imo, Robbie and Evie’s cramped, dirty apartment.

Innocence kept me interested and intrigued, wanting to watch Evie release the past, give herself permission to be happy and successful in the present and open up the heart she’d so long ago snapped shut. Robbie was a fascinating character absolutely full of surprises — and the biggest ones come at the end of the tale. It didn’t really bother me that we were supposed to believe Robbie was “appearing” to Evie from, I suppose, purgatory; it seemed oddly realistic and all right with me.

Tessaro’s writing is vivid and smooth; there’s no choppy prose here. Each individual character is fleshed out and realistic, an absolute must for me as a reader. Overall, Innocence lived up to my high expectations after viewing the cover art! I’m passing it on to my sister next!

4 out of 5

ISBN: 0060522283 ♥ Purchase from AmazonPublisher Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg