Book Quote:

“Peter looked shamefaced. I supposed he had no wish to tell her that he’d refused to tell me much at all since he confessed that he’d been speaking to the spirit of his dead mother. It chagrined me still to think of how I’d laughed, how certain I’d been that he was teasing me. What I knew of spirit circles came from the articles in the newspaper about the New York Conference’s Sunday meetings in Dodsworth Hall, where spirit rappings and table tiltings were all the fashion; and the summaries given of lectures by the infamous Fox sisters, who had brought spiritualism to the world’s attention. I had no patience for such things, and I don’t suppose I could be blamed for mocking him, but I’d spent the weeks since trying to apologize. I was thankful Peter had forgiven me enough to bring me here tonight, though I was still uncertain why.”

Book Review:

Review by Lori Lamothe (OCT 28, 2009)

Megan Chance’s The Spiritualist is one of those books that exerts a strange hypnotic power over its readers (or at least this reader). Set in New York City in 1857, the novel offers a bit of everything: gothic thrills, mysterious deaths, paranormal experiences, rich historical detail, and even a dose of erotically charged romance. Chance, who is also the author of An Inconvenient Wife and Susannah Morrow, is a skilled writer who deftly manages to create a convincing historical backdrop, interesting characters and an engaging plot. Though the novel languished on my shelf forever, once I finally picked it up I found it difficult to put down.

As the novel opens Evelyn Atherton sets off with her husband Peter to attend a spirit circle at the house of Dorothy Bennett, a sickly eccentric who believes she is in communication with her dead sons. When a gun misfires during the séance Peter concludes someone has attempted murder and rushes off to investigate. Unfortunately for Evelyn, he never returns and within days she finds herself charged with his death. She soon realizes that nearly everything she had believed to be true was little more than an illusion. Peter’s family, one of New York’s aristocratic “Upper 10,” quickly abandons its facade of acceptance and even Evelyn’s closest friend has far more to say to the police than to her. Aside from her husband’s former law partner, who agrees to defy New York’s elite to defend her, she is truly friendless—not to mention broke.

But Evelyn isn’t about to crumple in the face of opposition, even from a family as powerful as the Athertons. In an effort to discover the true murderer she infiltrates Dorothy Bennett’s spirit circle and decides to pass herself off as a medium to gain her trust. The only problem is that the circle already has a medium, a suave Creole named Michel Jourdain, and he is quite sure that one spiritualist in the Bennett household is enough. Despite Jourdain’s polished exterior Evelyn has no doubt that he is dangerous, so dangerous that he may well be the murderer. Yet almost against her will she finds herself strangely attracted to him. In the ensuing chapters, Evelyn, the rational investigator’s daughter, struggles between what reason tells her must be true and what intuition forces her to confront. Her final realizations – about the murderer, herself and the nature of truth – lead her to a transformation that is as unsettling as Jourdain himself.

Though I guessed the identity of the murderer early on, the novel held my interest until the final chapter. Part of my fascination – aside from the fact that I’m an unabashed gothic junkie — was due to the way Chance develops the main characters. On the surface they are just what you would expect them to be in this type of historical thriller. There is the wealthy eccentric (Edith Wharton’s Mrs. Manson Mingott comes to mind), the neglected wife wrongfully accused, the greasy charlatan who preys on people’s grief, the staunch respectable lawyer. Yet as The Spiritualist develops these clichés unravel so that the ending is startling, but not shocking—and not wholly unsatisfying either. At first I wondered whether Chance was taking a cue from Poe and invoking the unreliable first-person narrator, but I ultimately dismissed this idea. During one of his conversations with Evelyn Jourdain asks, “Imagine you come upon a house painted brown. What color would you say the house was?” Without thinking, Evelyn responds, “Why brown, of course.” Jourdain chides her, telling her that most judgments based on so-called evidence are usually little more than flawed impressions—that the brown house may well be white for the passerby viewing the house from a different side. The reader soon realizes that Michel is not only talking about himself but about Evelyn as well.

There are other good things about the novel, too. Chance writes elegantly and her descriptions of New York are detailed enough to be convincing (at least to someone who isn’t too familiar with the city). The paranormal aspect is fun and the romance kept me interested, in part because it was more than the typical strong, moral hero meets spunky young widow. My biggest disappointment was the predictability of the murder plot. At times Evelyn seems unconvincingly naive and though this could be due to her unwillingness to see reality it’s also a necessary plot device to keep the mystery from becoming too obvious. Still, these drawbacks don’t diminish the ultimate appeal of the novel. If you’re looking for something to read this Halloween weekend, The Spiritualist might just be that book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 29 readers
PUBLISHER: Three Rivers Press; 1st edition (May 27, 2008)
REVIEWER: Lori Lamothe
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of

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October 28, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, New York City

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