Friday, December 07, 2007

book review: A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin

Title: A Proper Pursuit
Author: Lynn Austin
Publisher: Bethany House, 2007
Genre: Historical fiction
ISBN: 0764228919

When 20-year-old Violet Hayes bids farewell to her newly divorced father and his fiancĂ©e Widow Maude O’Neill in June of 1893, it’s supposedly to visit the Chicago World Fair. But what she really has in mind is to find her mother and discover why she left so suddenly nine years earlier. If it wasn’t because of illness, as her dad has told her all these years, what could it have been?

However, getting a chance to even look for her mom, let alone find her, proves much trickier than she expected. And so in A Proper Pursuit, historical fiction by Lynn Austin, we have Violet’s quest to find her mother hampered at every turn by the agenda others have for her. Socialite Aunt Agnes is determined to get her married to the most eligible bachelor in Chicago. Suffragette Aunt Matt wants her to use her energy carrying placards in demonstrations for women’s rights. On days she’s not accompanying one of the others, grandmother asks her to help out in the slums. There she is nearly overcome by the poverty and hunger, not to speak of the nasty smells.

The whole situation is complicated by the constellation of beaus this deb soon finds in her orbit. “Marry for love,” insists Aunt Birdie, who has turned quite batty after her own true love never came back from war. But what is love, Violet wonders. Do any of Violet’s suitors really love her? Why didn’t her own parents stay together since their marriage started out as a love match? And what if, when she finds her, Violet discovers her own mother doesn’t love her?

The plot is chock-full of action and variety -- what with all the people competing for our heroine’s attention. Though in true suspense form Violet’s search for her mother is hampered at every turn, and the marriage proposals keep coming -- from every direction and with dizzying speed -- all the plot ends do tie together neatly at the end.

Main character Violet tells the story in first person and so we see events from her fresh and unconventional perspective. Her sassy and irreverent thoughts about life in general and her beaus in particular give the book lots of entertaining bits. Her lively imagination, developed through voracious reading of mystery novels, causes her to read lots of intrigue into the people and events that come her way. Though at first she seems superficial, she matures over the months that the story spans to become, in the end, a complex and sympathetic character.

Secondary characters are many and varied. None of Violet’s aunts, grandmother, father or beaus is developed to great depth and through much of the book seem more like one-dimensional caricatures than real people. However, by the end most have shown us a little of their motivation and do gain a level of depth and believability. Aunt Birdie, with her intermittent and convenient amnesia, stretched my credulity the most. I’m not sure why she was there -- as a symbol of intuition perhaps?

The historical setting is one of the things that made the book worthwhile for me. Austin shows us glimpses of high society life, women’s struggle for rights, and the plight of the poor. We also see the Chicago World Fair up close with its educational and cultural exhibits, its casino and burlesque booths, and its latest big attraction -- Mr. Ferris' wheel.

Though the book talks a lot about romantic love, Austin also addresses the theme of finding love on a wider plane. After all, that’s what Violet’s search for her mother is all about. Violet ends up finding love in an even more satisfying way when she encounters the love of God at one of Mr. D. L. Moody’s evangelistic meetings. Austin also gives prominence to themes of parenting, Christian social action, the role of social convention, and women’s struggle to win equal rights with men.

A Proper Pursuit is a book that slips down easily. But along the way I realized it had raised questions and issues far weightier than I expected to find while hanging out with such a coquettish and lively heroine. Fans of romantic comedy and Americana will want to add A Proper Pursuit to their collections.


Kandra in Tennessee said...

Great review! I, too, expected this novel to be simply fluffy and light-hearted. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the character developed and matured as she made some great discoveries! I thoroughly enjoyed this book and your review.

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