Thursday, May 16, 2019

Historical Fiction - Novels from Sujata Massey and Jennifer Chiaverini

What is it about historical fiction? The last two high-profile contemporary novels I read were both lauded, but I just found I had nothing interesting to say about them. But when my taste ventured historical, I felt compelled to follow up on a previous post where I wrote about Murder Knocks Twice and Park Avenue Women. If you're reading this on May 16, Calkins will be at Boswell tonight in conversation with Erica Ruth Neubauer. If you're reading this afterwards, I'm brainstorming the idea of a 1920s Chicago night with both Calkins and Rosen, who would focus on her Dollface novel. Somebody up for partnering with us? Let me know.

Having decided that we have an awful lot of great mystery novelists coming to Boswell (that's for another post), I thought I better catch up on them. Being that Sujata Massey's latest novel, The Satapur Moonstone, it seemed timely to read one of her books. And here's the question on mysteries - do you dive right into the latest book or do you head back to #1 in the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill? One thing I have realized is that when I was reading mysteries in my twenties, I never paid attention to series order. What has changed - my reading or authors writing?

Being that Widows just received the Mary Higgins Clark Award as part of the Edward Awards, that seemed to be the best choice, especially because I could pass the book on to Anne, who is reading the novel for our Boswell Mystery Book Group in July. I also so enjoyed Massey's presentation when she came to the Lynden Sculpture Garden for book #1.

The Widows of Malabar Hill is about Perveen Mistry, the first female lawyer in Bombay. The story takes place in the 1920s and the character is based on Cornelia Sorabji, which Massey talks about here. There are some important differences - Perveen's family are practicing Zoroastrians, whereas Sorabji was the daughter of a Hindu mother and a Parsi (Zoroastrian) father who converted to Christianity. Sorabji, like Mistry, earned her degree at Oxford, but she wasn't granted it until 30 years after she took the exam.

In this case, Mistry law has a longtime family client whose patriarch has died. He leaves behind three widows, and curiously enough, the agent has documents saying they all want to leave their dowries to the wakh, or charity. Only the charity, which previously helped veterans of all religions, is now going to refocus to helping build a madrassa, or Muslim boys school. Something seems funny, especially in the signatures.

Now the key here, and I think this may be a twist that shows up again, is that in order for the firm to investigate, they need to talk to the widows, only they practice purdah, living in seclusion from men. Even the agent talks to them through a curtain. Perveen is the only woman who can get answers, but those answers lead to more questions. And then! And then! I'm not going to give much away here.

In this case, I'm glad I read the The Widows of Malabar Hill because there's a lot of backstory. Perveen, in her travels, spots someone who looks like her estranged Calcutta husband, and that opens the story of how she met him and exactly what happened that she is now back working with her family in Bombay (Mumbai). And there's no question for me that Massey's novel works equally well for historical fiction and mystery fans.

The Satapur Moonstone, just released, is won raves from all the advance trade publications, with Julie Ciccarelli saying Massey did a superb job combining the history with a "top-notch mystery" in Library Journal.

On the subject of historicals, I just finished Jennifer Chiaverini's latest novel, Resistance Women. It's hard to believe that Chiaverini has now written eight historical novels, being that many still think of her as the author of the twenty-book Elm Creek Quilts series (soon to be twenty-one). For a while, her focus was on the Civil War era, featuring women were often footnoted and marginalized in historical retellings. Now that we are highlighting the accomplishments of women and people of color, their stories, like that of Ada Lovelace in The Enchantress of Numbers, are becoming better known.

For her latest, she's turned to World War II, and the story of Mildred Fish Harnack, the only American executed by the Germans under explicit orders from Hitler. For many years, her accomplishments were minimalized as a Communist sympathizer, but as Chiaverini notes, records have been released since then that tell a very different story.

And while there are actually four women at the core of Resistance Women, we give an extra shout out to Harnack because she was raised in Milwaukee* and then attended UW-Madison. Harnack's story rotates with Greta Kuckhoff, a German translator, and Martha Dodd, the daughter of the United States Ambassador to Germany who is well-known to readers from Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. Joining them is Sara Weitz, a fictional character drawn from several Jewish women in the Resistance movement. I was a little sad that Sara was fictionalized, but I've read enough historical fiction to know that this is something you just have to do, just like sometimes you have to play with facts and timing. Every author has a different philosophy of what their line is that they will not cross. And I do sometimes have to remind people that it's historical fiction, not history.

Of course it's hard to not be transfixed by a World War II narrative, but I think Chiaverini did a particularly excellent job telling the stories of these women, particularly when there were a lot of other characters to keep track of. And the book is a relative doorstopper at over 580 pages. But the story compellingly moves along, and is neither overly reliant on dialog or that way that some writers have of overly focusing on things like clothing details.

Every so often I hear from a customer saying they can't read another novel about World War II. But there are so many stories left to tell, and I think that Resistance Women really highlights the dangers of fascism and dictatorships and how our liberties can be lost in incremental ways that many of us don't notice what we've lost until it's too late. And then of course one can see The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Lost Girls of Paris both ensconced on the bestseller lists for multiple weeks.

And from a booksellers's perspective, it does something one hopes every great book will do - it left me hungry to read more - not just In the Garden of Beasts for the Dodds, but Julie Orringer's The Flight Portfolio. I loved The Invisible Bridge, but it newest hasn't gotten to the top of my pile. Hey, I'd love to read more but I have a bookstore to help run.

Speaking of which...

Jennifer Chiaverini will be at Boswell on Sunday, May 19, 3 pm, to discuss Resistance Women. Register for our event at and give me a better handle on how many chairs to put out. Thank you in advance. She'll then be at Books and Company in Oconowoc on Thursday, May 30, 7 pm.

Sujata Massey will be at Boswell on Tuesday, May 21, 7 pm, to discuss The Satapur Moonstone, as well as The Widows of Malabar Hill. No registration for this one - I'm winging it.

*Alas, I should note there is not much about Milwaukee in Harnacks's story.

Photo credits:
--Susjata Massey credit Jim Burger
--Jennifer Chiaverini credit Michael Chiaverini

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