Posted in Netgalley

The Glimpse by Lis Bensley.

This was a complicated and fascinating book about art, but also how difficult the relationship can be between mothers and daughters.. I really believed in this story and it’s portrayal of the difficulties in making art. I was not surprised to read that the author had been an art writer, because of the detail and truth in the process of creating. Set in the art world of NYC, Lisa is a painter in the Abstract Expressionist era of the 1950s. She starts to be sidelined when she becomes pregnant, but truly believes she can be a mother and still create great art. Studying in NYC is a dream and I think she really felt she’d found her people, her tribe. Fellow artist and lover Hank, goes up against her for an exhibition and is surprised when it’s Lisa’s work that really gets noticed. We then jump to 1966.

When her daughter Rouge was born, Lisa found herself butting up against the male dominated art world, surprised to find it quite conventional after all. I loved the feminist take on what we imagine to be a fairly free and bohemian world. It was an area of life that I’d imagined had less barriers. I really felt for Lisa and understood her disillusionment when her ex-lover is suddenly a new darling of the movement. Especially considering how similar their work is. The psychological effects of this realisation include resentment building between mother and daughter. The resentment is felt, even where it isn’t knowingly expressed or acknowledged. Lisa ends up teaching in college to pay the bills, she also starts to drink more heavily and take risks. Years later, when her daughter Rouge takes an interest in art she chooses photography as her medium. She looks for a mentor and finds Ben Fuller, who happens to be one of Lisa’s old lovers. This acknowledgment, and from a male member of the art world, adds another layer of resentment between mother and daughter. If Rouge’s photography is going to be noticed, how will Lisa cope and what lengths will she go to in order to deal with these negative feelings? Would she consider sabotage?

When she was pregnant Lisa could have chosen another road, she could have walked through a door of her choosing and be living a different life. She hasn’t intentionally made Rouge feel unwanted, but the choice to stop creating art held within it so much self-sacrifice, that it’s some unconscious negativity and even anger has come through to her daughter. Now her daughter is going to take the acclaim that Lisa feels is rightfully hers. However, Rouge is also angry, about the drinking and the revolving door of lovers who come in and out. She is so dismissive of her mother’s choices that she’s very surprised to find one of these lovers had anything useful to teach her. If her photography is good enough, she can imagine doors opening for her. It could be an escape from home and her mother.


I loved that all those elements and difficulties of a woman creating are expressed through Lisa’s world and it’s likely the author has felt similar constraints herself – they haven’t really gone away half a century later. I still feel guilty if I’m writing instead of doing the housework, or doing something for the family. I even find it hard to tell friends I can’t see them because I’m writing. Writing isn’t seen as real work until you’re published, but if you can’t write that never happens. Everyone thinks it can just be moved to tomorrow, and I know I’m not alone in putting it off. Some of that could be imposter syndrome, but it’s also saying it out loud. If I tell people I’m writing, then it’s real with all it’s chance of failure. However, the difference between the 1950s and the 1960s is a huge one culturally, There’s the pill for a start, leaving women in developed countries in charge of their own fertility. Between that and the more permissive attitudes in society it’s clear to see why Lisa would feel there is a huge gap between her generation and her daughter’s. Rouge is free to network and really sell herself. She can curate her own image as an artist, whereas mothers already have one. The author depicts the artistic journey so well – that imposter syndrome, the dreams, the crushing reality and self-sabotage are all seen in these two women. The author shows, quite beautifully, how mothers and daughters misunderstand each other: not knowing the cultural differences between their generations; not even understanding, never mind appreciating, the sacrifices made and the love behind them. This book is about that distance between mothers and daughters, a distance that can only be bridged through openness and honesty, as well as space and time. This was a fascinating and psychologically complex read.

Meet The Author.

Lis Bensley is a writer living in Santa Cruz, CA. She has worked as a journalist at The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, when she lived in Paris and studied cooking at the Cordon Bleu. Subsequently she wrote The Women’s Health Cookbook. To entertain her children, she wrote The Adventures of Milo & Flea about the antics of their cat and dog. She is currently hoping to publish her novel The Glimpse and is working on sequels to the Milo and Flea story.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

I hadn’t heard of Cecily Neville and wasn’t exactly sure where she was within the characters I already knew in the period just before the cousin’s wars better known as The Wars of the Roses. I was familiar with women like Jacquetta Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville and Warwick, The Kingmaker, from my reading of Philippa Gregory. I was also aware of Anne Neville and Isobel Neville, Warwick’s daughters, who married the Duke of Clarence and Duke of York, later to become Richard III. I hadn’t realised that Cecily Neville was the mother to both those boys and King Edward IV. I was only a few chapters in before I realised that Cecily and I share a grandmother (well to me a great-grandmother goodness knows how many generations ago) Katherine Swynford. In fact Katherine lived around five miles from me, at both Torksey Castle and Kettlethorpe Hall in Lincolnshire. She was mistress, then wife of John of Gaunt and for a short period was Queen of England. One of her daughters, Joan, is the mother of Cecily Neville. The pair, Katherine and Joan, are buried not ten minutes from where I write this, in Lincoln Cathedral. There is something very exciting in reading about your ancestor, so it did change the experience of the book for me.

The opening scene, at the burning of Joan of Arc, is one of the most powerful I have ever read. Cecily narrates in the first person:

‘It’s no easy thing, to watch a woman burn. A young woman, who has seen only three more summers than yourself and claims the voice of God compels her actions. But there it is; the day’s work. And she must harden herself to it.’

It sets the scene for the rest of the novel perfectly, it gives us a jolt and prepares us for how brutal this period of history was. It gives us a sense of how women are treated, especially those who explicitly disdain the rules of society. Joan of Arc didn’t play by the rules. Cecily is determined to shape her own future, but though words and ideas instead of action. Court is a deadly game of chess and Cecily is always on her guard. Make no mistake this is a woman’s side of court life. Where her ideas and beliefs are put across, whether at the King’s council or on the battlefield, only men are present. We hear about battles through messengers, and the men left standing afterwards. We hear about the King meeting his council through Cecily’s husband Richard. Yet the idea starts when both of them talk last thing at night or out hunting, just the two of them so no one else can hear. Cecily campaigns through letters, befriending influential women and petitioning the Queen – although in this case she believes the Queen is truly the one in charge anyway.

Without her husband Richard though, Cecily would have no avenue to pursue her plans. This is an arranged marriage, as we see in the book the family are already marrying off their eldest daughter at the age of 10. After the ceremony, the young bride and groom go back and live with their families until the age of fourteen or fifteen when the bride and groom go to live in their marital home together. So, Cecily would have had the same rules apply to her match. Luckily it appears to have been a good match, in business and pleasure. Most importantly for Cecily, Richard regards her as an equal and listens to her in courtly and political matters. His respect for her, which seems unusual for the time, means that the men of her household and her sons listen to her as well. They value her judgement and her ability read a situation and the people involved. However, being a courtier isn’t an easy life. I won’t reveal the plot, but I will say that when you’re at the beck and call of a King, you have to hope that King is of good judgement and sound mind.

One aspect that really stood out to me, was that all the women are deeply affected by their fertility, or lack of it. Cecily and Richard have been married for eight years at the start of the book, but still haven’t had a living child. In fact by the end of the book, I couldn’t keep up with how many times she had been pregnant. There is a period in the middle of the book where she realises she’s been pregnant for the majority of the last few years. I was also surprised by the breadth of the families, with mothers still being pregnant at the same time as their elder daughters. When any woman in the book delivers a son I could feel their relief. Everything must be inherited by a son, who continues that aristocratic line. These years of wrangling over who has the strongest claim to the throne, as well as the death of his own elder brother, make sense of Henry VIII’s obsession to produce an heir. I think the author captures beautifully the pressure these women feel. Their sense of loss, even though infant mortality rates must have been quite high, runs deep. Giving birth is very much women’s work, and the blame for what they do or don’t produce sits squarely with them. It’s hard to imagine not being able to control your fertility; to decide when to start or when to stop having children.

The story flowed well, and for me could have benefitted from being slightly longer. There were large time jumps in a couple of places and I did have to keep looking people up, checking family trees and names as opposed to titles. That was me trying to make complete sense of it, to fit this piece in to the larger jigsaw I was more familiar with. This was a fascinating piece of history, bringing to life another incredible woman from this time period. She sits with Joan of Arc, and her contemporaries Jacquetta Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, as women who know how to fight a war of words. Like present day spin doctors they weave the tale they want the court and the country to see – Cecily suspects the Queen of weaving the most audacious tale of all. I was left with the sense that courtly life is a living game of chess, with human pieces. Those close to the throne could be lucky enough to remain in favour, but more likely are only two moves away from ruin. As for the ending, those with historical knowledge will be aware that Cecily’s schemes are only successful to a point and there is even more turmoil beyond the book’s final pages.

She is remembered as the mother of two Kings of England and grandmother to a Queen, but the painful truth is she outlived all of her sons. Even worse, she had to witness their treachery and betrayals of each other, including the disappearance of her eldest grandsons (and heirs to the throne) from the Tower of London, never to be found. Six years before Cecily’s death, her granddaughter Elizabeth married Henry VII finally uniting the houses of York and Lancaster. She even lived to see the birth of her great-grandson Henry VIII. Annie Garthwaite has fictionalised the life of a very powerful and intelligent woman, who has a much bigger hand in history and my own ancestry than I’d realised. Her work is well-researched, creating a book that is horrifying in places, but ultimately a compelling piece of historical fiction.

Published by Penguin, 29th July 2021

As part of the blogger group The Squad Pod, Cecily has been our book club choice for August. You can see our read-along chat at @Squadpod3 on Twitter.

Meet The Author

Annie Garthwaite turned to fiction after a 30-year international business career, fulfilling her lifelong ambition to write an account of Cecily Neville, matriarch of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses and mother of Edward IV and Richard III. Her obsession with Cecily and her family began in school and never left her. Setting off in the world of work, she promised herself that, at age 55, she would give up the day job and write. She did just that, completing her novel while studying for a creative writing MA at the University of Warwick. CECILY is her debut novel and, even before it’s publication, was named a ‘top pick’ by The Times and Sunday Times.

http://www.anniegarthwaite.com

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mr Wroe’s Virgins by Jane Rogers.

‘The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.

In 1830, as he thought the end of the world approached, the charismatic, hunchbacked prophet of a religious sect settled in Lancashire heeds the biblical injunction and chooses seven virgins ‘for comfort and succour’. Basing her novel on the life of the real John Wroe, a leader of a group called the Christian Israelite Church, Rogers crafts an impeccable narrative, interweaving the diverse mindsets of some of the chosen women and the prophet during the nine months of complex interaction. Part morality tale, part history, packed with accurate details of early 19th century life, the stories of Leah, Joanna, Hannah and Martha unfold as they cope with the hypocrisy, blind beliefs and idealism of the sexually threatening prophet.
Told with humour, irony and a generosity that embraces even the sinister Wroe, this is a compelling story of astonishing depth, elucidating religious idealism, the beginnings of socialism and the ubiquitous position of women as unpaid labourers.

I came across this novel, even before the BBC TV series of the same name. Having seen/read both, I can recommend them equally, although I think the novel is slightly more successful in a few different ways. The way the book is structured into four different narratives allows the women’s characters to develop fully, as over nine months, the story of their lives unfold. Through them we come to experience all seven women: a pious believer; two sisters, still too young to understand their place in the world; a disabled woman; a beautiful, but egotistical woman; a mute and badly beaten woman; a girl donated by her aunt and uncle, who doesn’t believe in the prophet or his religion. It is only through the women that we experience the prophet, a clever reversal of power. In fact these narratives are the only power the women have at first, these are their only words free from restriction or religious dogma. This power shift is especially interesting when it comes to Martha, who is mute. When I first encountered her narrative I thought I’d bought a book with pages missing. However, it’s just Martha trying to express herself the only way she knows – depicted in staccato monosyllabic language, Martha writes about what she knows, eating and sleeping in the first instance. Yet instead of cutting off her narrative, Rogers leaves a blank page. This is the space into which Martha can develop and come to know herself. One of the most powerful parts of the book is watching this transformation.

We hear that Mr Wroe is a powerful speaker, and we can hear his preaching and religious teaching. However, we don’t fully come to know and understand the man. He doesn’t get to construct himself through language. So, we know something of his belief system and his interpretation of the Bible, but nothing personal. This could be because he is a conduit of God, simply meant to deliver God’s teaching. It also leaves him as something of an enigma. Why and when did he become the person he is today? The belief system he has is very selective, patriarchal and seems to benefit him more than his congregation. He sees no problem in allowing Leah to bring her illegitimate child to live with them. He accepts Hannah into the fold despite her lack of faith, and her doubts allow him to admit his own. He uses all the women as unpaid domestic servants and the exploitation doesn’t end there. He seduces the pious Joanna by convincing her that they will beget the new Messiah. For each woman his approach is different, but it works. I found his exploitation of Martha particularly difficult to read and his ability to take Joanna’s faith and use it against her in such a manipulative way is despicable. I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I’ll reserve any more detail, but such an arrangement can’t last and I kept reading hoping for the women’s emancipation.

I have always enjoyed this book and further reading shows it has stood the test of time. The historical detail is so accurate and the scene she sets is vivid – Martha’s time in the pig sty with the animals really sticks in my memory. It may seem hard to believe that any parent would willingly give up their daughters to this man. However, I understand how religious fervour can sweep through a community. Having family on my Dad’s side from the Isle of Axeholme, I know my ancestors would have experienced the Methodist revival started by John Wesley who hailed from Epworth. The real life Mr Wroe’s congregation firmly believed he was a holy man. Maybe they felt that God would look favourably upon them if they supported his vision. There were of course monetary reasons too; offloading a disabled or mute woman who would never earn money or marry could have helped a family who were stretched financially. Also, the stigma of having a disabled daughter, an old maid still living at home or a a girl who has a child out of wedlock could be wiped out by their inclusion in the prophet’s household, This can be a challenging read in parts, but worth the work as you become pulled in by the voices of these women. Little is known about the real ‘virgins’, but here Rogers gives them a voice and a power they clearly didn’t have in life.

Meet The Author

Jane Rogers has written 10 novels ranging from historical to contemporary to sci fi. Books include Mr Wroe’s Virgins (which she dramatised as an award-winning BBC drama serial), Island, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb (ManBooker longlisted, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012). Her short story collection Hitting Trees with Sticks was shortlisted for the Edgehill Award.
She also writes radio drama and Classic serial adaptations (most recently of John Wyndham and R.L. Stevenson).
Jane has taught writing to a wide variety of students, and is Professor Emerita at Sheffield Hallam University. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest novel, Body Tourists, is a dystopia set in 2040.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Illusionists and Daughter of the House by Rosie Thomas.


My experience of finding these two novels by Rosie Thomas shows that the old cliché ‘never judge a book by its’ cover’ does sometimes apply. I was browsing on my kindle (a lethal pastime) and looking through my recommendations when I came across Daughter of the House. The cover had a magical, ‘circus’ feel that I loved so I had to discover more. It had an historical setting pre- WWI onward; a period I’d been drawn to that year. It also promised a brave, enlightened woman at the centre of the story about growing up in an unconventional musical hall family. I bought it based on cover alone, then realised it was the second in a series of books.The first was The Illusionists and I knew from the cover of top hats, decks of cards and magic wands that this was the series for me. It’s rare for me to find a magical novel set in the late Victorian period that I haven’t read. The title seemed familiar though and it was only the next morning that I found (among the many piles of books that litter the corners of my house) I had a hardback copy of the same novel, but had never picked it up to read. The cover was very different, depicting a bridge over an almost impressionistic river scene, that told me nothing about the contents inside. A friend had bought me the book when it first came out, but due to that cover and the lack of a synopsis on the back it kept being recycled to the bottom of the TBR pile. It showed me a difference between buying physical books and kindle copies. I am often alerted to unusual and highly enjoyable novels via kindle store or apps like Goodreads that I wouldn’t necessarily pick up in a book shop due to the cover. Of course the bonus was that I now had two great novels to read back to back and I was not disappointed by either of them.

Set in 1885 the first novel follows the story of Eliza who is a young woman limited by lack of money whose only choices for the future seem to be the domesticity of an advantageous marriage (an idea she finds suffocating) or a degrading downward spiral towards life on the streets. Despite the massive social changes happening in fin de siècle London, women have less chance of making their fortune and living life on their own terms. Then she meets the charismatic and ambitious illusionist Devil Wix. Devil is haunted by traumatic events in his childhood, but is determined to become a household name and successful entrepreneur in the theatre world. We follow Devil’s mission as he puts together a band of quirky misfits to put on the greatest show London has ever seen in the run down Palmyra Theatre. During the 12 years covered by the novel Devil is by turns alluring, brilliant and often comical. However, from his friend’s and Eliza’s point of view he can be elusive, maddening and deceptive when he wants to be. Somehow though, the reader is able to forgive him anything. Perhaps this is because we are charmed by him in the same way Eliza is. Two friends work alongside Devil. His magician friend Carlos and set/props designer Jasper. Carlos is a dwarf in stature, but has mighty magical ambitions of his own and with Devil creates new and memorable illusions to stun audiences. Jasper is more of a scientist who tinkers away in his workshop creating the props for the illusions, but has also designed an automaton he names Lucy. As soon as Eliza comes into their world it is as if the circle of friends is complete and they work together to create a magical show. Although it seems inevitable that they will be together, Devil and Eliza’s courtship is a slow dance. Their budding relationship sees Eliza step outside what is thought to be respectable for a Victorian woman and embark upon an alternative life she never thought possible. For Devil the relationship brings him the stability he has never had and a partner in work and life who can match him for determination, ambition and creativity.

The magical and more supernatural elements of the novel are balanced beautifully with the historical period detail. Eliza chooses to live in a women’s hostel and work for a living even before she becomes involved with the theatre crowd. This is a bold, modern choice that tells us a lot about her character. The author uses Eliza’s sister as the contrasting Victorian ideal of ‘The Angel in the House’. Eliza’s visits to her sister’s home show us that traditional Victorian domestic life, but while Eliza loves her nieces and nephews she doesn’t envy her sister’s position in society and often seems relieved to return to her unconventional life. She treads a very fine line between what is and isn’t respectable by socialising in bars with Devil, Carlos and Jasper, staying alone with Devil in his flat, becoming a life model at the art school and performing on the stage. She is confounded by her need for Devil to be faithful and exclusive to her.


We also see economic change and social mobility throughout the novel. Devil promotes his shows in a way that has never been done before. First he utilises Eliza’s art student friends to create mysterious adverts across the city, that develop a buzz about his show. He then creates street illusions that are easy to transport and perform, then performs these ‘pop-up’ illusions in the street, handing out leaflets to stunned onlookers. By choosing his streets carefully he attracts wealthy audiences who are happy to spend money and this ensures the theatre is packed night after night. Due to this method of promoting his theatre, and the different audience he attracts, Devil changes what is acceptable as entertainment in upper class circles. Whereas music hall was thought to be low culture and only for the working classes, Devil exploits the human need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and makes his theatre the place to be seen.. His entrepreneurial skills result in an upward mobility for his family so they can live in a beautiful area of London and have more opportunities that he had. This is where the story develops into the second novel and into a background of even more turbulent times in the early 20th Century.

Daughter of the House centres on Devil and Eliza’s daughter Zenobia (known to the family as Nancy) against the backdrop of WWI, the Suffragette movement and the decline of music hall. The novel opens as the family embark upon a boat trip and tragedy strikes when the captain decides they must return to port because of a storm. The boat crashes into the marina and it is a fight for survival for Devil and Eliza and all of their children. Thomas creates a beautiful metaphor here in Nancy’s fight to stay above the water as her large Victorian skirts and petticoat become water-logged and start dragging her under. This foreshadows Nancy need to live a different life and break free of Victorian expectations of women, perhaps even more radically than her mother did. In the struggle Nancy not only saves herself, but her brother too and it is here we see the beginnings of her resilience and determination. It is also here that we see the first glimpse of what she calls her ‘Uncanny’ – the ability to see beyond the physical world. Nancy fights against this unique gift and doesn’t want anyone to know about her ability. Yet it is because of this accident that family friend Mr Feather does become aware of her abilities. As his beloved sister is lost in the accident, he begs Nancy to foresee where she is and this episode sets off an obsession that never goes away.


The Palmyra theatre is struggling and Devil has been hiding the true extent of their financial difficulties from his family. Eliza’s growing role as a mother has meant taking time away from managing the theatre and Devil does not have her administrative or financial skills. Eliza loves her children, but is frustrated in the very role she never really wanted. Meanwhile Devil flounders in his management of the Palmyra, making bad financial decisions and failing to provide what modern audiences want to see. As the crisis deepens Nancy becomes aware that her gift, hidden until now, might be the only answer to her family’s problems. The late Victorian appetite for mesmerism, hypnosis and spiritualism has continued into the 20th Century and Nancy’s gift soon begins to fill the theatre. So, as WWI draws to a close, the Palmyra is once again playing to packed houses as grieving families in their thousands want to find their lost sons, fathers and husbands still lying unfound in the battlefields of France. Thomas shows the social and historical change of three difficult decades so cleverly especially the wake of WWI as women become more in control of their lives and a country grieves a generation lost. For those who survived, the need for to forget the horrors of war can be seen at the raucous country house parties of Nancy’s theatre friends. The breakdown of class barriers becomes apparent as Nancy’s brother transcends his family’s social class, becoming an officer in the army and attracting a wife from an aristocratic family. Alternative ways of living are explored as the author shows us more women living alone, and Nancy’s gay best friends who have openly set up home together. Yet, we also see what post-war living could be like for the lower classes who acquired injuries, but can’t afford adequate care or rehabilitation. Nancy’s brother returns home with shell-shock and finds coping with the outside world beyond his capabilities, instead finding solace in his garden.

The book explores Nancy’s struggle with a rare and beautiful gift that can also be terrifying and unexpected. Her rivalry with Mr Feather highlights the darker side of clairvoyance and ultimately ends in unwanted confrontation. We see the need in people who desperately want to hear from their lost loved one only to be disappointed. A disappointment that can develop into an obsession and an inability to move forward in the grieving process. Nancy wrestles to maintain the purity and honesty of her gift; never pretending or creating hope where there is none. Audiences fail to realise that she is unable to control her gift. It isn’t like picking up a telephone, she doesn’t know who or what will come through. However, audiences want the reassurance that they were seeking, or the guarantee their loved one lives on somewhere in the afterlife and is waiting for them. Nancy tries to give no promises and does not want to offer false reassurance, if forced to give the exact promise they seek, she feels she has betrayed herself and her gift. This is the difference between true clairvoyance and show business and for Nancy they are uneasy bedfellows. What she sees is not always spectacular nor the happy ending an audience might be hoping for. This dilemma rang true for me as something all people with these gifts might face and it shows that making money from her ‘Uncanny’ is not as going to be as easy as her father’s magic tricks; if she is going to do it with integrity.


I would recommend reading both of these books, but they do stand-alone too. The Wix family are entertaining and intriguing, the historical backdrop is well researched, and even the smaller characters are well written and memorable. Carlos’s determination to overcome his disability is inspiring and his friendship with Devil, like all showbiz partnerships, is full of ups and downs. Eliza’s sister and brother-in-law are there to provide a contrast to the Wix’s unconventional relationship, but their characters are still well-rounded and the relationship between the sisters feels real. Eliza’s realisation that having children is all consuming and life-changing creates an unexpected affinity with her sister. She recognises that even if you want an alternative way of life, children always create a need for a strong family network and support around you. In the early 20th Century women’s lives are changing, but not that much. Eliza’s daughter, Nancy, realises that even though she is more accepted as a strong independent woman she is still hampered by her class and bohemian background. Despite feeling free to pursue her love for a married man, she finds that this freedom is not all she imagined it would be and yearns for more. If you want page turning story-telling with a supernatural and magical twist then these are the books for you.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Second Marriage by Gill Paul.

#RandomThingsTours #TheSecondMarriage #BlogTour @gillpaulAUTHOR

Published in UK: 24th August 2020

Publisher: Avon Books

ASIN: B084WS53XZ

Synopsis: From the internationally bestselling author of The Secret Wife comes a tale of love, sacrifice and betrayal, available now.

Published in the US as Jackie and Maria.

JACKIE | When her first marriage ends in tragedy, Jackie Kennedy fears she’ll never love again. But all that changes when she encounters…

ARI | Successful and charming, Ari Onassis is a man who promises her the world. Yet soon after they marry, Jackie learns that his heart also belongs to another…

MARIA | A beautiful, famed singer, Maria Callas is in love with Jackie’s new husband – and she isn’t going to give up.

Little by little, Jackie and Maria’s lives begin to tangle in a dangerous web of secrets, scandal and lies. But with both women determined to make Ari theirs alone, the stakes are high. How far will they go for true love?

My Thoughts | I was drawn to this book because I’ve always had an interest in the Kennedys and have read a lot of fiction and biography around Jackie and JFK. However, I didn’t know a lot about her marriage to Aristotle Onassis or how their relationship started considering he was in a long term relationship with opera star Maria Callas. I was interested to read a story I knew, but from the perspective of the two women involved rather than the men. I was quickly drawn into the narrative told in alternate chapters from both women and starting when they were still in their first marriages. Jackie is trying to cope with marriage into the politically obsessed Kennedy clan as well as grieving over a lost child and Jack’s indiscretions. Maria is married to Battista Menighini who manages her career, but feels unfulfilled without a child and misrepresented as a diva by the press. Both women have met Onassis and been invited to his yacht, since he likes to entertain the most famous people in the world. I wondered if either woman ever imagined in only a few years they would be rivals.

Both women’s characters were well drawn and I felt I really did get to know the real them, although I felt more of an affinity with Maria – possibly because she was led more by her emotions than Jackie. Although not the diva she was often portrayed as in real life, Maria acts on her emotions and seems more in touch with what she needs. As soon as she falls in love with Ari (Onassis) she acts on it, breaks the news to her husband and risks her reputation to be true to her heart. I also felt a kinship in her grief over struggling to be a mother, something she does have in common with Jackie who has had a miscarriage and loses a daughter at the beginning of the novel. In fact the women have more in common in their backgrounds than I realised, mainly in their relationships with their mothers.

Litsa Callas was a cold and distant mother, in fact such was her disappointment that Maria wasn’t a girl she didn’t even look at her baby daughter for four days. Throughout the novel we see her engage in manipulation, abuse and betrayal of her daughter including selling details of her relationship with Onassis to the world’s press and eventually writing a ‘tell-all’ book about her daughter. In a radio interview Callas recalls the lack of confidence she had in her looks, especially her weight, compared to her mother who was very slim. Callas felt ‘ugly and unwanted’ as a girl, added to this her mother pressed her into relationships with occupying Italian and German soldiers in order to gain money and food during the Axis occupation. Some sources claim that Maria came to no harm, but she sees it as a form of prostitution and the author writes about Maria telling Onassis that she was manhandled by soldiers and on one occasion was almost raped. In a moving account Maria claims her mother had no warmth or sympathy for her daughter on her return from this assault, just continued to put them at risk to earn money.

I was saddened by the scene where Jackie’s daughter is stillborn, adding to her pain Jack is on a flight and she only has her mother for support. Janet Auchincloss was authoritarian and austere, believing in money, beautiful homes and status rather than love and insisting on this for her daughters, regardless of the man. Jackie adored her father ‘Blackjack’ Bouvier who showered her with affection and presents. After her parents divorce, her mother was left short of cash until her remarriage and this left a big impression on Jackie. It was impressed upon her that security was more important than love, but there was still a touch of idealism in Jackie who thought she’d found both love and security in Jack. The author does a great job of showing the reader the differences that open up between Jackie and her in-laws. Jackie is a big reader, intelligent and interested in culture whereas the Kennedys live and breathe politics. She’s more of an introvert, who wouldn’t normally court the limelight and often wishes that Jack’s ambition could be curbed. She worries about the type of First Lady she will be, feeling under constant scrutiny from the Kennedys who think Jack’s wife should appeal more to the average American woman. Jackie’s interest in fashion is shown as a way she expresses herself and I felt this was maybe her only means of expression. Her mother stifles any emotion and she’s encouraged to ignore Jack’s indiscretions too. She isn’t allowed to be honest with anyone about how heartbroken she truly feels. I felt for her so much in the scene where she takes a call from Marilyn Monroe who makes it quite clear she is involved with Jack. Jackie recognises that Marilyn is very fragile and could damage his career irreparably, even in her heartbreak she is thinking of him. Even worse is the part where Jackie overhears a conversation that brings his indiscretions closer to home than she ever imagined in a double betrayal.

This is an immersive piece of historical fiction that completely transported me to the 1960s and the rich elite of the period. Using fashion, interiors and an in-depth knowledge of her characters Gill Paul drew me into a world of privilege I could never have imagined. She drew parallels between these two extraordinary women, but also between families who were as cursed as they were wealthy and powerful. I felt that both women’s upbringings drew them to men who were rich and powerful, but also controlling and possessive. There was no question of Maria or Jackie enjoying the sort of affairs that Kennedy and Onassis conducted. The intense control of their mothers almost groomed them for the lives they chose as women. Although it might have appeared more respectable, it’s not hard to draw parallels between Janet pushing the Bouvier sister towards rich husbands and Litsa pushing her daughters towards occupying soldiers. There was also a connection between their dislike of the limelight, and the ability to have their voices heard – ironic in the case of Callas with her incredible sound. I found myself feeling sad for both of them throughout. This is a great read, with interesting supporting characters and a series of beautiful settings such as Venice, the Greek Islands and the Kennedy Bouvier estates. I felt like one of the jet set while reading and the author added to my knowledge of these women with newly discovered evidence, such as the revelation that Onassis and Callas may have had a son, Omero, who died at birth. Using a depth of background research, the author has created an accessible, enjoyable and enlightening novel about two of the most famous women in the 20th Century.

The Author

Gill Paul’s historical novels have reached the top of the USA Today, Toronto Globe & Mail and kindle charts, and been translated into twenty languages. They include THE SECOND MARRIAGE (titled JACKIE AND MARIA in the US), two bestselling novels about the Romanovs – THE SECRET WIFE and THE LOST DAUGHTER – as well as WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, which was shortlisted for the 2013 RNA Epic Novel of the Year award, NO PLACE FOR A LADY, shortlisted for a Love Stories award, and ANOTHER WOMAN’S HUSBAND, about links you might not have suspected between Wallis Simpson and Princess Diana.

Gill is also an author of historical non-fiction, including A HISTORY OF MEDICINE IN 50 OBJECTS. As well as writing, she speaks at libraries and literary festivals on subjects ranging from the Titanic to the Romanovs. Gill lives in London, where she is working on her tenth novel, and she swims daily in an outdoor pond.

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