A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

It’s been a few years since I last read a Susanna Kearsley book and as I still have two or three left to read I decided to include her most recent, A Desperate Fortune, on my 20 Books of Summer list. There are some connections between this book and her previous one, The Firebird, but they both stand alone and it’s not necessary to read them in order.

Like many of Kearsley’s novels, A Desperate Fortune is set in two different time periods. First, in the modern day, we meet Sara Thomas, a young woman with a special talent for solving mathematical puzzles and breaking codes. Sara also has Asperger’s and relies on the friendship and support of her cousin Jacqui. Jacqui works in the publishing business and when one of her authors, the historian Alistair Scott, asks for help in deciphering a journal written in code, it is Sara who gets the job.

The other thread of the novel takes place in 1732 and follows the story of the diary-writer, twenty-one-year-old Mary Dundas, who is half French and half Scottish. Mary’s family are Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James Stuart, who they believe is the rightful King James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Setting off on a journey across France with her brother Nicolas one day, Mary has no idea what he has planned for her, and is shocked to find herself caught up in a plot to protect a fellow Jacobite who is on the run from the law. Her diary tells of the lengths she goes to, the disguises she adopts and the dangers she faces in trying to conceal her companion’s true identity.

These two storylines alternate throughout the book, so that we read several entries from Mary’s journal, followed by Sara’s experiences in decoding it. Both women are interesting characters – and there are a few parallels between the two – but I found Mary’s story much more gripping and couldn’t help thinking that it would have worked just as well on its own without Sara’s framing it. There’s a romance for each woman too, but again, it was Mary’s that I found most convincing; although I did like Sara’s love interest, it all seemed to happen too quickly and too conveniently.

It was interesting to revisit the subject of the Jacobites, who also feature in The Firebird – although the two books explore the topic from very different perspectives, with this one being set in France and the other in Russia. The author’s note at the end of the book is long and comprehensive, discussing some of the choices made in writing this novel and explaining which parts of the story are based on fact and which are fictional. I was surprised to see how many of the characters I’d assumed were purely imaginary were actually inspired by real people!

I did enjoy A Desperate Fortune, though not as much as most of the other Susanna Kearsley novels I’ve read. My favourites seem to be the ones with supernatural elements, such as The Firebird, The Rose Garden and Mariana. I always like Kearsley’s writing style, though – there’s something so comforting about it, so easy and effortless to read. It’s the same feeling that I get when I pick up a book by Mary Stewart. I’m looking forward now to reading my remaining two Kearsley novels, The Shadowy Horses and Sophia’s Secret (the UK title for The Winter Sea).

This is book 12/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m aiming for 15 now, I think – anything over that will be a bonus!)

19 thoughts on “A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

  1. Carmen says:

    Great review, Helen! Like you, The Firebird–together with Sophia’s Secrets–is my top favorite. Mariana and The Shadowy Horses come next on my list. My least favorite happens to be The Rose Garden. I still have two more of her novels to read, and next year a new one will be released.

    • Helen says:

      I think the Kearsley novels I liked least were Season of Storms and The Splendour Falls – both set entirely in the present day, with no time travel or historical storylines. I’m looking forward to reading Sophia’s Secret and The Shadowy Horses, and I’m pleased to hear she has a new book coming next year!

  2. Lark says:

    I kind of wished she’d stuck to telling just Mary’s story in A Desperate Fortune, too. It would have been enough. (And I hope you enjoy reading The Shadowy Horses. It’s MY favorite Kearsley novel.)

    • Helen says:

      I thought Mary’s story was much more interesting – I usually do prefer the historical storyline when a book is set in two time periods. I can’t wait to read The Shadowy Horses! I’m glad to hear it’s your favourite. 🙂

  3. piningforthewest says:

    I enjoyed reading The Shadowy Horses too but I haven’t got around to reading any others. I think I would like A Desperate Fortune so I’ll give it a go.

    • Helen says:

      The Shadowy Horses is one of the two I haven’t read yet, so I’m glad you liked it! I hope you enjoy A Desperate Fortune if you do give it a go.

  4. Yvonne says:

    It’s hard to say which of Susanna Kearsley’s books are my favourites as I loved them all so far. I still have Season of Storms, Every Secret Thing and the two published before Mariana. Mariana will always be special because it was the first book of hers I read, then I’d have to say The Winter Sea, The Firebird and A Desperate Fortune. I’m looking forward to her new book next year and also the four-part mystery, The Jacobite’s Watch, which she is writing with Anna Lee Huber, Christine Trent and C.S. Harris

    • Helen says:

      Yes, all of her books are good, although I’ve enjoyed some of them more than others. Season of Storms was not a favourite, but Every Secret Thing was an interesting read as it’s quite different from her other books (and originally published under a different name). I’m looking forward to her new book too, and now I’m intrigued by The Jacobite’s Watch as I hadn’t heard about that one!

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