If I could inhabit the pages of a book, or better yet walk right inside a story and be at the very least an observer, I would happily do so with with Katharine McMahon's The Crimson Rooms. It was a pitch perfect read the first time around a few years ago and it held up beautifully to a reread this year. While it is undeniably a comfort read for me (and a reliable reread now), there is something about it that bumps it up from a nice simple entertainment to something a bit more. An engaging story, a page turner really, interesting characters that are nicely developed-yes, tick all those boxes easily. But the plotting is spot on and how McMahon weaves the story together with its really intriguing storylines is quite exceptional. It is the sort of historical fiction that I love, and it all came alive, so while I was racing to the end to find out what happened (okay, it was a reread so I knew more or less what was going to happen, but it didn't matter), I didn't want to get there too soon even knowing I was revisiting the story in anticipation of finally reading the sequel, The Woman in the Picture.
So what makes this a step above your ordinary entertaining historical novel, for me anyway, is a protagonist who is not so easily definable. She's smart and independent yet tethered to a family of, now all females (thank WWI for their situation-what you might call genteel poverty--or at least 'barely making it'). She is haunted by the death of her beloved brother who was killed in the War and by the suicide of her father. She does her best to do her duty as a daughter to her mother, grandmother and aunt yet she forges ahead in her desire to be a lawyer. An opportunity only available to her through her brother's death. He was the one meant to be a solicitor and follow in their father's footsteps, not Evelyn the daughter of the family. A waste of an education on a mere female, so she gets it only by default.
Evelyn is plagued by self-doubt that she can achieve what she has dreamed of and set out so tenaciously to do, and few are on her side and willing to help her. She sees only her shortcomings and it is an unconventional lawyer (specializing in lost causes--just to prove the Establishment wrong--so Evelyn is right up his alley), Daniel Breen, who will give her her chance. Being one of the first women lawyers, the odds are against her both in work and in love. As if being a bluestocking weren't enough of a challenge against succeeding, the odds against her finding a potential partner in love are severely stacked against her (one of the War's surplus women). And to make life even more complicated, one night a young woman with a small boy in tow arrive on the Gifford's doorstep claiming to be the wife and son of her brother. All the way from Canada. Meredith was James's nurse and apparently something more.
Meredith and Edmund will throw the Gifford household into an upheaval and blow new life into Evelyn's life at the same time. Meredith is a whirlwind. Beautiful and talented she hopes to start a new life in London and study art, and she expects the Giffords to take her in and support her and James's son. Not everyone in the Gifford family is welcoming to the strangers, yet Evelyn is drawn to both as being the closest link left to her brother, whose death is still painfully raw for her.
It's against this backdrop of uncertainties--this woman and her son filled with hope and secrets and the palpable antipathy of nearly everyone in the legal world (men and women--judges, solicitors and even secretaries) that Evelyn defends her first client and is drawn into a murder investigation Daniel Breen takes on. It's her moment to soar, but of course it's not easy, and twice as hard thanks to being a woman. Meredith admires and encourages her and then shares things about James that tarnish Evelyn's happy memories. And a seemingly mutual attraction to a fellow solicitor, a man engaged to someone else, will create a happy and equally agonizing distraction.
What I love about this book, what sets it apart from being that simple entertainment, is the unpredictability of the characters, especially Evelyn. Not everyone behaves as you expect them to in a historical novel. Even the bit of romance in the story is turned on its head in a way you don't exactly see coming and made me admire Evelyn all the more. No one is wholly good or bad and those gray areas feel very real and lifelike to me. They are conflicted characters and you find yourself getting so very wrapped up in their lives. And this isn't a typical story of happy endings, yet that said, it is an entirely satisfying ending, which I admire all the more. Thankfully the story continues on and I am once again finding myself getting lost in the pages of The Girl in the Picture as well.
Katharine McMahon is one of my 'must read everything she's written' authors and I think I have nearly all her books. I've read several and happily have several more unread and waiting for me. I see an untitled novel slated for fall publication and I hope it is not simply wishful thinking. I have no idea what the book will be--something new? I think I could happily read more about Evelyn or Meredith, but then maybe the book I am reading now will have a finality to it. Even so, there will be more stories to explore. And as you see, she is an author I will also happily reread.