Monday, April 12, 2010

Review: She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell

One of the huge benefits of reading novels is the way they bring certain time periods to life. It's amazing to me that I can know something from a factual standpoint, but until it's embedded within a story and affects the lives of made-up people I've come feel affection for, it never feels real. I suppose it's the same way we can know about war or the outsourcing of jobs or the terrible struggle immigrants face trying to become legal, but until it's happening to someone we know and love it's just something out there. When it affects the lives of people we love, it becomes real.

I loved She Walks in Beauty for this very reason. It takes place in the late 1800's in New York City and focuses on the season...the debut of all the lovely young eligible society women. Really it doesn't sound all that interesting, but it's by Siri Mitchell, one of my favorite authors who is exceptionally gifted in bringing settings to life. So I looked forward to it and not surprisingly, was swept into the story.

When the De Vries return to the States from Europe early, Clara Carter's aunt decides she'll be debuting a season order to snag the heir for her husband. Clara is very upset about this decision. Her tutor hasn't really been educating her in how to be a lady, but rather actually educating her so she has a lot of ground to make up. She was also hoping to go to college instead of debuting. But when her family makes it clear she is to salvage their honor, and she finds out her best friend will also debut this season, she takes the task. There is so much for her to learn and so much fashion she has to take on, including the very restrictive tight-laced corset. She is forced to wear the corset even while sleeping and so she is unable to ever be comfortable or properly digest her food.

Clara's father is a doctor and well known in the city, and able to secure many invitations for her. Her mother passed away when she was quite young.

Mitchell expertly weaves the details of this process into Clara's narrative. I found myself absolutely fascinated by the entire process and also, of course, very fond of Clara who never really bought into the appearances of it all, and was often confused about just why they were doing what they did. There is a love story and while it's not dominant it's full of just the right amount of delicious romantic tension, another thing I think Mitchell is very good at.

I also loved the the sub-story of Clara learning about Jacob Riis' book, How the Other Half Lives. It was her first exposure to the world of poverty and the various reactions of the rich when she brought up made me sad and also felt all to familiar. I was also really interested in the way church was an event to simply show off what one was wearing. The denomination I grew up in was founded in New York because a church wouldn't let the poor into services around this same time period. This is a perfect example of a story driving home and making real what that looked like for me.

The symbol of the tight-laced corset as the restriction on women in society was also well done, though horrifying. I've always been glad I'm not expected to wear a corset, but this book really really drove home the horror of it for me. It also makes me wonder what sort of things we do now that will be seen as horrifying to future generations!

She Walks in Beauty concludes this sort of series of Siri Mitchell. Each book is a standalone book in different time periods, but features some element of fashion heavily into the story. I highly recommend them all: A Constant Heart, Love's Pursuit

Also, there is a little bit of talk about whether or not God cares what happens to someone, but otherwise this book doesn't have much to make it overtly Christian fiction. I really really hope some of you that might stay away from Christian fiction will check it out.

Rating: 4.75/5
Source of Book: Review copy
Publisher: Bethany House, a division of Baker


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