“The Daring Ladies of Lowell,” a historical novel by Kate Alcott, would have been a great book to read prior to our visit to Lowell a few years ago. It’s set in the city against a backdrop of brick factory buildings where garment workers, many of them “mill girls,” slaved away for meager wages, in the 1800s, under horrendous conditions.
Alcott loosely bases her book on the true story of a “mill girl” found hanged, prior to labor laws being passed. Though evidence clearly ruled out suicide as the cause of death, the suspected girl’s murderer was released and the crime remains unsolved.
In “Daring Ladies,” this girl is Lovey Cornell, a young woman who befriends Alice Barrow, come from the farm to escape an abusive father after the death of her mother.
Lovey welcomes Alice to the boardinghouse built by the factory’s owners, the Fiskes, wealthy aristocrats who modeled their cotton garment operation on similar factories in Great Britain. While Alice adjusts to fatigue like she’s never known, bloodied fingers and witnesses a fellow worker narrowly escape a broken neck when her long hair is caught in machinery, the Fiskes plan for a factory visit from President Jackson. They’re determined to showcase their operation as serving the workers’ best interest.
The mill girls’ hope of being represented fairly comes from handsome Samuel Fiske, the son of the company’s patriarch, who soon is attracted to Alice, admiring her for her courage. His brother Jonathan is the polar opposite of Samuel. Jonathan is a womanizer involved with wild and brassy Lovey. But did he murder her?
“The Daring Ladies of Lowell” shines when the author focuses on the “mill girls.” Alcott does a fine job of portraying the girls’ lot in life, the filthy air they endure that leads to lung disease, and their inhumane long hours of work. But I was expecting a romance with more substance and a less hurried conclusion.
These minor glitches shouldn’t keep readers away, however. Alcott weaves an interesting story, and a book you’ll definitely want to read if a visit to Lowell is in the offing.
Author Maggie Shipstead burst onto the literary scene with her breakout novel “Seating Arrangements,” which earned her numerous awards. Her new book, “Astonish Me,” is an eloquent story about ballet, featuring dancers who make their craft appear effortless but once backstage, “grimace like goblins, letting their pain show.”
Shipstead creates a fascinating company of dancers, a few with boundaries that leak into one another creating love triangles. At center stage is Joan Joyce, a corps ballerina, with dreams of becoming a soloist like her roommate Elaine. Though Joan strives for greatness, she falls short, instead becoming consumed with the famous dancer Arslan Rusakov, whom she helps defect from Russia.
A brilliant dancer, but an unpredictable and cruel lover, Arslan “came along and swallowed her up,” so thinks Jacob, an old friend of Joan’s in high school and college. Jacob, a solid, good man, wants more from his relationship with Joan.
Because of their shared history, Jacob is protective and refers to the Russian as “Arslan the Terrible,” when Joan tells him of his ego, his brooding ways. Arslan isn’t “faithful to anyone,” yet “the audience loves him for being extraordinary and also for having been born to the enemy, for coming to dance for them instead.”
The novel skips back and forth in time from the mid-1970s to the final act in 2002, all the while building tension and exposing secrets in the lives of Joan, Arslan and Jacob. Other well-drawn and alluring characters appear in the limelight, Mr. K., “a genius” of an artistic director; Chloe, a ballerina with a tragic family life; and Harry, a young dancer who follows in Arslan’s footsteps.
Early on, readers know that Joan and Arslan will soon be history, and the narrative relies on flashbacks to fill in the gaps while Arslan waits in the wings, still owning a chunk of Joan’s heart, much to Jacob’s chagrin. The Russian becomes a major player again late in the book when a secret that’s fairly obvious is revealed, crushing Joan far worse than her failure as a ballerina. Deception never pays off — in real life or on the stage. This is the lesson Joan finally must learn.
Beware. You’ll put miles on your car listening to “The Museum of Ordinary Things,” refusing to turn off the engine you’ll be so enraptured. The genius of Alice Hoffman’s newest is brought to life in a riveting audio book.
Set in New York City in the early 1900s, “The Museum” is historical fiction with an ethereal feel — a dreamlike quality pervades this novel about a man who collects oddities in his Coney Island museum, freaks the world calls them, but Professor Sardi refers to them as “wonders.”
Professor Sardi has a daughter, Coralie, a lonely child. She never knew her mother, who died young, and has been raised by Maureen, a housekeeper she adores. Coralie is ignored by her father, “half scientist and half showman,” his work is his passion; he doesn’t allow Coralie any freedom or friends.
The girl grows up sealed away like an exhibit in their home; one half is their living quarters, the other half where the dozen or so “wonders” perform. The Professor is cruelly abusive to Coralie, born with a deformity, the flesh between her fingers webbed.
Continually seeking “an act” that will keep his “freak show” open, he trains Coralie to stay in the water for long periods, passing the “girl-fish” off as a mermaid. Sightings set the city abuzz about the Hudson mystery.
Coralie’s tale is revealed as the story of a young Jewish photographer, estranged from his religion, is presented. Eddie Cohen is hired by a heartbroken father to find his missing daughter following the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Soon Eddie and Coralie’s path’s cross, and the two become consumed with one another as the Professor’s obsession with Coralie and his abuse of her spirals out of control.
“The Museum” is simply extraordinary, completely original and filled with brilliantly drawn characters. Every detail is tied up, and the novel concludes with a flourish that’s surprising and unforgettable. Here’s an audio book that will provide hours of mesmerizing listening pleasure.