Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Book Review - Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig's The Forgotten Room

The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: NAL
Publication Date: January 19th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Olive is a maid in the opulent Pratt Mansion on the upper east side. She wasn't raised to be a maid, far from it, her father was a famous architect and had ambitions of grandeur for his family. Ambitions that ended when the Pratt's refused to pay for his work on the mansion and he ended his life. Olive has infiltrated the household to clear her father's name, little thinking that she might find something other then vengeance inside those four walls her father built. Almost thirty years later Olive's daughter Lucy hears her mother's deathbed utterance of the name Harry and has become convinced, in part due to her overbearing grandmother, that the Harry her mother spoke of was Harry Pratt. Could she be related to that once great family? She takes a job in the city working for the firm that handles the Pratt estate and gets a room at Stornaway House, a respectable boarding house for young women that was once the Pratt Mansion.

Though Lucy isn't the only one looking into the Pratts. John Ravenel, the son of the famous painter Augustus Ravenel, is trying to find a connection between the Pratts and his father. Lucy's life is caught up in the secrets of the past and present but can her heart endure the discoveries? More then twenty years have passed and World War II is raging, Stornaway House is now a hospital and they have a very competent female doctor on staff, Kate Schuyler, the daughter of Lucy. On a stormy night they receive a new patient, Captain Ravenel. The only room available is a disused and forgotten room at the top of the once great mansion that Kate has been sleeping in. Up in this secret aerie will Kate and her Captain connect the dots and reconcile the past and the present to make a future for themselves?

Books with multiple authors that aren't anthologies or short story collections are an interesting breed apart. You often get husbands and wives writing together, sometimes under a combined pseudonym, A.A. Aguirre is Anne Aguirre and her husband Andres, Ilona Andrews is Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, something I didn't know until I met them. Even two good friends writing together happens, look at Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia. The key to these writing partnerships is that they have a bond that goes beyond the writing to an understanding of each other so they can form a cohesive narrative. There are even ways to work around cohesion, this being a more epistolary approach where each author takes a character and is their voice, much as Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer did with their Sorcery and Cecelia series. But to have more then two authors is a rarity.

To have three authors each tackling a different time period but working together to mesh their writing styles so that it feels like a cohesive whole seems in the abstract like an insurmountable task. Even when marketing this book Lauren commented on how the PR department had a hard time conveying that that they "were three authors writing a single novel... rather than an anthology." Yet when you start to read the book all your doubts leave. Aside from the minor exception that Kate's section is written in the first person the book feels like a cohesive whole, not like loosely strung together stories. I haven't read any other books by Karen White or Beatriz Williams, I signed on initially just for Lauren, but seeing how they worked together I'm excited to see what they all do next.

Even though the three writers created this cohesive story I still found myself liking certain characters more than others. I mean, it's nearly impossible not to pick favorite characters in a book, but when all those characters are in a certain section and you have to read two other sections to get back to them, it's hard not to be occasionally frustrated. What was must frustrating to me though is how the narrative is constructed so that only one of the three women gets the happily ever after. Seeing my favorite character NOT get her HEA, that got on my nerves, even if I figured it was inevitable. But seeing my least favorite character, Kate, get the HEA? Oh, yeah. I'm not a happy woman. So much of the love stories seemed to hinge on the star-crossed lovers motif that when the women used common sense and logic to settle down I was frustrated.

Olive and Lucy both seem resigned to their fates that they couldn't be with the ones they loved. Seriously, all I could think of was the 30 Rock episodes with Michael Sheen where he meets Tina Fey's character and he thinks that she is his settling soulmate. That the "universe wants us to settle for one another... fate is telling us this is the best we're ever going to get. We're each other's settling soulmates." Not the one true love, the one that you settle for. This is so depressing to me. There's this connection between the women of this family and the Ravenel men that passes down the line, they are inevitability drawn to each other like magnets yet it takes them three generations to get it right? Disgruntled sigh. But who I feel the worst for is the poor schmoes that Olive and Lucy marry. These two men ADORE these women, they are the loves of their lives and the women know this and settle and become bitter. Those men deserved women who loved them as much as they loved!

As for all these women searching out the truth and connecting with these Ravenel men, it makes you realize the importance of asking questions before it's too late. Family secrets build and fester and this shows what happens when you wait too long; you don't get the truth. Or you don't get the whole truth. The fact of the matter is we never think to ask questions of our parents or our grandparents when there's time. Why does the ancestry bug bite people in their 50s and 60s? If we could jump start this a little earlier than perhaps we could learn more, get the answers, even get answers to questions we never thought to ask! This is how we lose our ancestral identity, through laxity. Yes this book takes place in a different time, in fact several different times, when openness wasn't the order of the day. But still, there is silence because people were willing to accept it as the status quo. We need to be willing to ask the hard questions of our parents before it's too late, learn of their life and loves, and even their frustrations and sins. A few too many deathbed utterances could easily be replaced with truth. But then, from a fictional standpoint, where's the mystery?

Another product of the times is the pervasive sexual harassment within this story. In fact at times it's so prevalent you feel drawn out of the story. Yes, I know it's not historically inaccurate, it's a sad truth, but making it such a theme takes something away from the book. It leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste in your mouth. If it was important to the narrative I would understand it's presence, but it just seems to be used as a signifier of the times. The worst is Kate's fellow Doctor, Dr. Greeley. He is a worm. A slimy, slippery, creep. I just don't understand why with him. Not the why he behaves the way he does, but why Kate lets him. Yes, she's a female in a male dominated profession. Yes, he could make life uncomfortable for her. But no, that doesn't mean she should acquiesce to dinner dates and gropings in cupboards. In fact her unwillingness to stick up to this creep is probably the number one reason I like her least of the female trio. She has the ability to stand up to him, she just won't. And that's the problem with sexual harassment. Too many women not willing to raise their voices up. Kate is a woman ahead of her times, not a product of her times, and she accepts something that is unacceptable. Ugh. No.

But among all the characters there's one character that I just couldn't connect with, and that's the Pratt mansion. Because the mansion is just as much a character as any of those of flesh and bone. I just didn't buy the building as an actual location. It doesn't work. There seems to be no real handle on the building. The structure seems to shift and morph. In fact this would be the only time where the three authors I think are most obvious, because it seems they all have slightly different interpretations of this one place and they don't quite jive. I think they needed a real life counterpart to actually walk around in to get the architecture right. For the longest time I thought Lucy was actually rooming in "the forgotten room" only to be shocked in her last section to find out she was living in the servants quarters the floor below. In fact "the forgotten room" seems to be able to be accessed several different ways, at one point the stairs go all the way there, later there's only the secret stairs in a hidden cupboard. Also, was this room even really forgotten? It's seems to have fairly regular usage, and therefore the moniker of "forgotten" seems to be just desperate to add mystique. The reason I'm harping on about this is because a story needs to be grounded. This house was to be that. Instead it's like building your story on shifting sand. It works for awhile, but sometimes something is lost to the sea.


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