Set in post Civil War era Boston, this book introduces us to Nell Sweeney, a young Irish woman who, through a series of fortunate circumstances becomes the governess for a rich, Boston Brahmin family.
As the book goes on we learn that Nell has a past she is struggling to overcome and she has done an admirable job. So much so that even though she knows her origins are very low, her current deportment, manner and speech cause others to mistake her for a 'Lace Curtain' Irish. She becomes attached to both her young charge and Mrs. Hewitt, the matriarch of the wealthy Hewitt clan who gave her the opportunity to live and work in luxury.
But soon shocking news comes to the Hewitts that their eldest son Will (presumed long dead and buried in a mass grave after having been imprisoned in the notorious Andersonville prison) is not only alive but has been arrested for murder outside a whorehouse/opium den. Because Mrs. Hewitt is disabled and Mr. Hewitt isn't hurrying to clear Will's name, she implores Nell to find out what really happened. Because Nell feels very grateful to Mrs. Hewitt for her new life, she can't deny the woman anything and sets out to discover what she can about Will's fake death and the current murder.
Soon Nell finds herself treading streets she thought she'd escaped from as she unwittingly find herself caught up in trying to clear Will's name and find out what happened to cause him to never reveal to his family that he was still alive.
Before I give my impressions of the plot and the characters of this story, I must first talk about the atmosphere and the sense of time and place of this book. Of all the things, this is what stands out most for me as I was reading and truthfully what I believe made the book so darned enjoyable.
'The Gilded Age',as it is known, is a time that came out of the post Civil war. A time of rapid economic and industrial growth where vast fortunes were made. It was a time of the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. A time where consumption was conspicuous. It is during this time that this book is set and the author makes wonderful use it. Her depiction of the wealth, the almost languid entitlement of that upper class is incredibly textured. I could easily see in my mind's eyes the family portraits of the Hewitts with their aristocratic faces and their careless elegance.
But it doesn't end there. Where there is incredible wealth there is also incredible poverty. Workhouses, poorhouses, asylums, and all the dens of iniquity that serve both groups. Through her investigation Nell meets corrupt cops, opium eaters, various whores, cardsharps and moneylenders.
As a character Nell is poised between having been a denizen of both world. We feel her anxiety that one slip up and her comfortable position with her well made, expensive clothes and her place in the family could be gone in a snap. She is doing what she is doing out of real affection and gratitude, but she is uncomfortable seeing what could have been.
But she is also an incredibly bright, incisive and intelligent woman who finds the puzzle intriguing and after awhile she isn't doing it just for Mrs. Hewitt but for herself as well.
Which brings me to Will. What
a fascinating character. He is complicated and complex. A gentleman to his toes but one who is incredibly, deeply troubled. He and Nell are the heart and soul of this book (and I am glad to know he continues as a character in the rest of the series). I think I fell in love with him. And he isn't and easy person.
Which brings me to the story/plot itself. This is a wonderful mystery. I have read reviews that say it is reminiscent of The Alienist and I have to agree. But it is more compulsively readable than that book. Even though I gave a plot synopsis at the start of this review, I gave absolutely nothing away. i barely even scratched the surface. There are a lot of layers to this book and the enjoyment comes from reading them and finding out what is around the corner.
The characters are deeply and wonderfully drawn. The plot/mystery is fun to read as it unfolds and the denouement is a surprise.
LOVED this book.