Saturday, June 15, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

I love multi-generational historical sagas. Bethlehem by Karen Kelly is a perfect example of the genre. Alternating between a current day (early 1960s) storyline and that of a past generation (40-50 years earlier), the reader meets two very different women whose lives converge around family and scandalous secrets.

Joanna is a young woman from a working class background who marries into a fantastically wealthy Bethlehem Steel family, the Colliers. She and her husband, Frank, have two young children. They have been building a life for themselves when the death of Frank’s father leads to a change. Frank’s work hours with the family business increase astronomically. His mother and grandmother, alone in the ancestral home, need support. Nothing makes more sense than for Joanna and Frank to move into the mansion. Joanna is now a fish-out-of-water. The older Collier women are courteous, but aloof. Joanna feels isolated and bullied into conforming to a lifestyle she doesn’t want. Frank dismisses her complaints as unreasonable. She feels her identity melting away. Her only refuge is, unfortunately, the handsome young caretaker of the family cemetery, a man who seems to be a kindred spirit.

Joanna’s mother-in-law, Susannah Collier, is the most closed-off person Joanna has ever met. She seems to live in her own private world. Grief is understandable, she just lost her husband of many years, but Susannah’s cold shoulder goes beyond grief.

The reader is also cast back in time to Susannah’s childhood and young adulthood. Susannah Parrish, her sister India, and brother Kit, are the children of Bethlehem Steel’s chief engineer, Hollins Parrish. Kit is best friends with Chap Collier (the elder son of Bethlehem Steel’s owner) and close as well to Wyatt Collier (the younger son.) The children play together and get into all manner of mischief. For as long as anyone can remember, Wyatt has been desperately in love with Susannah and India has been infatuated with Chap.

We watch the Parrish and Collier children grow up and we follow Susannah’s successes and disappointments. She and Wyatt are the closest of friends, childhood sweethearts destined for marriage and happily-ever-after. But things don’t always go according to plan.

Meanwhile, in the current-day storyline, as Joanna’s life spirals out of control, the person who reaches out to her is Susannah, the mother-in-law with secrets of her own.

The story is lovely, full of warmth, love, and familial support. While not brimful of historical context, the period details set the scene well. The love stories are complex, realistic, and satisfying. This novel is recommended for fans of emotionally gripping multi-generational fiction.