Diane Chamberlain is not an author I have ever thought about reading, but when I unexpectedly received a review copy of her new book, The Stolen Marriage, from the publisher a while ago I was intrigued. The setting and the plot both sounded appealing and I decided that it would be worth at least giving it a try to see what it was like.
Our narrator is Tess DeMello and as the novel opens in 1944 it seems that she has her future all planned out. She is engaged to the man she loves – Vincent Russo, a newly qualified doctor – and she is about to take the final exams that will enable her to become a registered nurse. Things begin to go wrong when Vincent volunteers to help with a polio epidemic in Chicago and stays away for longer than expected. Feeling lonely and neglected, Tess agrees to join her best friend Gina for a weekend trip to Washington, where one thing leads to another and she finds herself pregnant by another man.
Convinced that Vincent will want nothing more to do with her, Tess goes in search of her baby’s father, Henry Kraft, the wealthy owner of a furniture company in Hickory, North Carolina. All she wants from Henry is enough money for somewhere to live and to provide for the child when it is born, so she gets a big surprise when he asks her to marry him. Thinking about the baby’s future, Tess agrees and soon she is part of the Kraft family, living in their luxurious home in Hickory.
Life in Hickory brings new challenges for Tess, however. She quickly discovers that, although Henry is not unkind, her marriage is a loveless one. Worse, she is unable to trust her new husband. Why is he hiding money from her and where does he disappear to in the middle of the night? And worst of all, Tess finds it impossible to fit in with Henry’s family and friends. His mother and sister seem to hate her – and make no secret of their hatred – but Tess isn’t sure why. Is it just that, with her Italian background and her desire to work for a living, they don’t consider her good enough for Henry – or could there be another reason for their resentment?
It took me a few chapters to really get into The Stolen Marriage, but after that the pages flew by. I was kept in suspense wondering what Henry’s secret could possibly be and although there were plenty of clues I still didn’t guess correctly! Tess didn’t understand what was happening either and I had nothing but sympathy for her as she tried to come to terms not just with the destruction of her old life but the awareness that her new one was built around lies and deceit. However, I struggled to understand some of the choices she made and I felt that her actions (and the actions of other characters) were sometimes contrived to move the story forward rather than feeling like the natural way she would have behaved. There were a few unconvincing plot twists and developments near the end of the novel too, but although this was slightly disappointing it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel too much. There were so many other things to love.
I particularly enjoyed the insights into what it may have been like to live in a small town in North Carolina in the 1940s. Having moved from an Italian neighbourhood in Baltimore, Maryland, Tess experiences a culture shock when she arrives in Hickory. Her husband’s family and friends are prejudiced, narrow-minded snobs who make Tess feel very uncomfortable, finding fault with her looks, her clothes, her opinions and her family background. Racial tensions are also high in the town and this aspect is explored through the story of a black family who work as servants in the Kraft household. Of course, there are good and bad people everywhere and in all walks of life, which Tess discovers when the polio epidemic reaches Hickory and the community must pull together to build and staff a new hospital in record time.
The building of the hospital is based on a true historical event (you can find out more by searching online for ‘the Miracle of Hickory’); I had never heard about this before, so I found that section of the novel fascinating! As the story is set in 1944, it was also interesting to read about the impact of World War II on the people of Hickory, with rationing in place and families waiting anxiously for news of sons, husbands and brothers fighting overseas. I loved the glimpse this book gave me into another time and place and although I’m not sure whether this is typical of Diane Chamberlain’s novels, I will certainly be looking for more of her books in the future.
Thanks to Macmillan for providing a copy of this novel for review.