Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Endearment by LaVyrle Spencer *****

Interestingly, this is now my 3rd favorite Spencer - and it's one of her earliest books, too!

The Endearment is the story of a young woman who becomes a mail-order bride in the mid-19th century (I believe it was 1854?) for a young Swedish immigrant in Minnesota. She and her younger brother answer the ad in desperation to find a new life - anything other than the hand-to-mouth existence they are barely scraping out in Boston after their mother died, leaving them homeless and penniless.

Unfortunately for all three of them - Karl, the lonely bachelor, Anna, bride-to-be and James, her adolescent brother - the relationship is built on lies to Karl. Anna presents herself as everything Karl is looking for - 25 years old, experienced housekeeper/cook, educated - and alone. But she is only 17, her only domestic skill is sewing - and she's accompanied by James who wrote the letters to Karl, because Anna cannot read or write. She doesn't lie about her appearance, however, and Karl is glad to see her even though he figures out right away that she has lied to him about her age - and about coming alone.

There's one other lie, or rather, omission of truth, that he has yet to discover. In order to earn enough money to pay James' fare, she has to ply her dead mother's trade one time. This is the one fact she is hoping is never revealed because she knows this one will be the deal breaker.

Karl is exceedingly patient and forgiving, after a fashion, of all the lies she has told him. Having an extra mouth to feed is more than offset by James' extra set of hands for chores. And there is enough of an attraction between Karl and Anna for them to build their relationship, slowly, to the point of acceptance and finally consummation. Karl's inexperience with women ensures Anna's secret, that even James does not know, isn't revealed - until James becomes more comfortable with Karl, and exposes damning details when telling him more about their life in Boston. Karl is able to add up the facts, and once he realizes what she did, he turns away from her and cannot forgive, just as she knew he would not.

Once again, Spencer fills in the details of their pioneer lifestyle and the relationships among the 3 characters in such a way that you feel what each is going through - the anguish of Karl's discovery, the fear Anna feels while trying to do whatever she can to keep her brother and herself safe and alive, James's awe at his new life and brother-in-law, and his confusion over why Anna and Karl are no longer happy, the pain of their inability to overcome the obstacles, and the relief and joy when they finally do overcome them and move into their new home, and their new life, at the end.

5 stars

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