Monday, July 25, 2011

In the Vespers I see...

The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell:

It’s the summer of 1889, and Amelia van den Broek is new to Baltimore and eager to take in all the pleasures the city has to offer. But her gaiety is interrupted by disturbing, dreamlike visions she has only at sunset—visions that offer glimpses of the future. Soon, friends and strangers alike call on Amelia to hear her prophecies. However, a forbidden romance with Nathaniel, an artist, threatens the new life Amelia is building in Baltimore. This enigmatic young man is keeping secrets of his own—still, Amelia finds herself irrepressibly drawn to him.

When one of her darkest visions comes to pass, Amelia’s world is thrown into chaos. And those around her begin to wonder if she’s not the seer of dark portents, but the cause.

Summary from GoodReads.

Baltimore, 1889. Amelia van den Broek has been sent down from her small town in Maine to find a husband. In this city she’ll experience many things for the first time: balls, archery, and mysterious visions that come on at sunset. These visions – some innocent, some sinister – open doors into a high society fascinated by spiritualists and the supernatural. Equally mysterious is Nathaniel, Amelia’s unacceptable suitor, who appears and disappears from her life at will.

As the visions become more horrifyingly true and her obsession with Nathaniel grows, Amelia must take control of her future and her heart.

Saundra Mitchell has an amazing ability to set a scene. In her first book, Shadowed Summer, I sweated along with the main character as she braved the humidity and sun in a search for ghostly answers. In The Verspertine she transports her readers back in time to 1889 Baltimore capturing the feelings of change and the supernatural that captivated the upper and middle classes.

Amelia’s cousin Zora and her parents are lodged somewhere on the upper scale of the emerging middle class – able to provide for dresses and dinner parties – but pinching pennies by doing most of the housework and food prep themselves. It is through this class window that Amelia experiences what Baltimore has to offer. The balls they attend are public, and Zora’s father hires young men to round out their dinner parties. This is how Amelia meets Nathaniel – a poor portrait artist from a bad neighborhood – beginning one of the most intense relationships I have read in young adult fiction.

Amelia and Nathaniel burn for each other and it comes across in every illicit touch and clandestine meeting. Their actual physical contact is very limited – a touch of bare hands through lace gloves should not smolder this much – but with each connection their bond grows stronger and hotter.

I used the word obsession in my summary and the more I look back on the novel, the more I feel it’s an accurate descriptor of their relationship. They are equally in thrall with each other, caught up in a first love that threatens to be all consuming. It is a testament to Mitchell’s writing ability that I was able to accept this level of feeling from both of them as real and not destructive. It helps that this is not the only example of love in the book (for example, Mitchell allows Zora and Thomas’s relationship to build on their mutual respect).  In fact, it is the myriad of relationships – romantic and familial – that make the story so strong and the results of Amelia’s visions so devastating.*

When you see the future, you take the good with the bad.

After reading The Vespertine, I found myself wondering not how it would do as a YA novel (although I hope it does well…very, very well), but how it would do as a book club selection for a more adult audience. As keeping with the YA genre, Amelia is clearly a teenager attempting to find herself and understand her place in life, but the aspects of Amelia’s visions and her relationships with family, friends and Nathaniel, as well as the time period itself, would make for great discussion topics for mature readers of any age.

Very much recommended for teens looking for a historical novel with romance, drama and a touch of something more, and to all readers looking for something a little different. Fans of Franny Billingsley’s Chime should also check this out. I’m looking forward to the next book and what she plans for the companion novel.

You can purchase The Vespertine from these fine retailers: Powells, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Your Local Indie, or you can pick it up at your local library.

Book Source: The library, but I will be purchasing my own copy soon.

*Read the whole book and then read the acknowledgements. I’m with Jackson Pearce.

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