|Knopf Books for Young |
by Jane Nickerson
Sophia has always envied those who live the good life, ladies who enjoy high society, fine clothing and jewels and live in beautiful mansions, but she has never had the opportunity to enjoy these things since her family is impoverished. However, when her father dies, she is sent to live with her wealthy and mysterious godfather, Monsieur Bernard de Cressac at Wyndriven Abbey in Mississippi. Her godfather dotes on her, showering her with clothing, jewels and gifts she could never have dreamed of, yet soon it becomes clear that Monsieur de Cressac is interested in being more than just a godfather to Sophia. Sophia thinks she could love him, until secrets from his past begin surfacing, and it becomes clear that Monsieur de Cressac is not the gentleman he projects.
A main strength of this novel is its rich description and the authentic, gothic feel of the mid-1800s setting. Not only is Mississippi hot and dreary, adding to the feeling of suffocation and isolation Sophia feels the longer she stays under de Cressac’s care, but the Abby, carried stone-by-stone from Europe and recreated in the new world, adds a heavy feeling of secrecy and undiscovered mystery to the place. Sophia’s character is quite naïve despite her impoverished upbringing; she adapts easily to the wealthy lifestyle without any of the suspicions someone who is poor might normally have in a similar situation. And while I question why she doesn’t see strings attached to her good fortune, she is only seventeen, and perhaps was sheltered by her father and older siblings from the harshest parts of poverty. In any case, her sweet naïveté is necessary for the tale’s unraveling mystery. The reader sees Sophia’s innocence begin to fade away as she discovers secrets about de Cressac’s many former wives, his views on slavery, and his quick-temper. De Cressac, based on the legend of Bluebeard, is sufficiently monstrous, as monstrous as any abusive husband in the present day would be, and is perhaps the best-drawn character of the novel. He is a man who leaves the reader on edge, never knowing when his rich generosity will be replaced with violence—an antagonist the reader will love to hate—but he alone cannot carry the conflict in the novel. The forbidden relationship between Sophia and the kind minister helps fill in the gaps, adding needed conflict; without this, the novel would have been simply page upon page of Sophia wondering rooms and visiting with ghosts of wives past when she isn’t appeasing de Cressac at dinner. The love that grows between Sophia and the minister adds tension in the story—until the minster appears, Sophia has little to lose if she leaves de Cressac. Less impressive are the story’s ghosts who were likely added to increase the feeling of mystery and intrigue so common in gothic tales, but their addition did little for the story. For one thing, Sophia isn’t afraid of them. Wouldn’t it be better if she felt the slightest bit of awe at the appearance of a ghost at least? A slight chill or feeling of apprehension? The ghosts appear on numerous occasions, but really add nothing to the story other than to give Sophia some weak sympathetic companions. Even the twist at the end could have been achieved without them. While I enjoyed the novel overall, especially the creepy climax, I didn’t struggle to set it aside from time to time in order to peruse other works, and I am surprised to see the author plans to make this tale a series with two more novels. Short of citing the classics, I am at a loss to compare this work to other YA books, so I’ll just say that fans of historical fiction will likely enjoy this novel, but those expecting a story filled with spine-tingling ghosts and page-flipping action might consider another author.