Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 8, 2009

Second Fiddle, and A Mercy: Part 1 of read-a-thon reviews

DSC00278After a few days away from the computer and having mostly avoided reading for over 24 hours (life is, after all, all about balance!), I’m ready to talk a little more about the spoils of my read-a-thon venture. I was really pleased with several of my book choices, and while I didn’t come anywhere near to getting through that stack I mentioned with such exuberance, I feel totally satisfied with my first read-a-thon experience.

Second Fiddle by Mary Wesley was my favorite of the day. It’s about a 40+ year old woman named Laura Thornby. She is indapendant, witty, eager to have fun, and caught completely off guard by a 23 year old struggling writer named Claud Bannister. Initially she is tickled by the idea of adopting him as an amusing project – encouraging his writing and getting him out of his mother’s house. She never expects that he might have true talent, or that she might fall in love with him!

Mary Wesley published her first adult novel when she was seventy-one, and you can tell that she is taking hints from a rich and interesting life, and drawing from a huge collection of personalities that I assume are similar to people she herself encountered. Her writing is utterly charming, full of humorous situations and pleasant village life, with plenty of gossip and barely concealed family mysteries.

The story she weaves is also thoughtful, addressing both the writer’s relationship with the characters they create, and how the successful and indapendant woman handles herself and her emotions when faced with an unexpectedly meaningful relationship. Wesley pulls it all off with lively prose that trips gaily to a finish that felt very true to reality.

While this book could have been a perfectly lovely bit of English village fluff, Wesley concocted something a lot richer. I am immensely pleased to have discovered her, and have full intentions of reading everything else she has written!

A Mercy by Toni Morrison was very different from the light and pretty world of Wesley’s England. Set in 1680s America, it traced the intersecting lives of a farmer and his wife, their Native American servant, the half-crazed orphan whom they raised, and Florens – a small slave girl whom Jacob took as part payment for a bad debt.

Florens begins the narrative as a young woman, painstakingly writing her story using the best words taught to her long ago by a kind priest. She is trying to decipher how she came to be at the present moment, heartsick and with blood on her hands. The tale is taken up and expanded by Jacob, by Lina, by Rebekka, by Sorrow, back to Florens, and finally resting with Florens mother, who cast off her daughter in order to save her. Each voice speaks of tragedy – what lies beneath the surface of slavery; the sometime good, but always brittle relationship between masters and slaves; the consequences of an act of mercy that can never be fully comprehended by the one saved.

I was impressed with Morrison’s handling of the story, but expected no less from her. She crafted individual voices and brought believable characters to life. Even though her book was a challenge to my heart and mind, I am definitely interested in reading more by her.

(Part 2 of my read-a-thon book reviews come soon. 🙂 )


  1. That sounds like a return to greatness for Morisson, thanks for the review because I’ve been cautious about picking it up after her more recent fiction fell flat with me (Love).

  2. This was my first taste of Morrison so I don’t have much to go on. I was just relieved that I liked the book! I hope you do too, Jodie. 🙂

  3. A Mercy sounds really good, Sarah! I have a prejudice against the kinds of books everybody raves about, but I’m beginning to believe this one might actually be as good as everybody’s said. Sweet!

  4. Richard – I’m kind of the same. It will probably be another couple of months before I bother to read ‘Howards End on the Landing’, for example. 🙂

  5. And I can’t wait to know what you thought of Nobody Move! I haven’t read that one yet but Tree of Smoke is certainly one of the greatest books I’ve ever read…
    And by the way, I love Sigrid Undset… Have you watched the Kristin Lavransdatter movie?

  6. Julie – A friend of mine is going to loan me the movie after I finish the book. One more section to go! I’m looking forward to see how the book translates to the screen.

    My reaction to Nobody Move isn’t especially great, but I would definitely read more by Denis Johnson. Review coming eventually…!

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