I started a neighborhood book club a little over two years ago, not sure it would work out. The first book we read was Diane Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies, and it was a great choice: it was set in a small Southern town fifty or so years ago, it included social issues (mental illness, forced sterilizations, the “appropriate” role of women in marriage) and it was filled with characters who stayed with the reader long after the last page was read. It also had the added EEEK! factor that occurs when you find out a novel is based on reality: in this case, forced sterilizations and racism. It made for some good discussions! So, with all that, I was happy to receive a copy of Ms. Chamberlain’s new book The Stolen Marriage, from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
This new book is also set primarily in a small town in the South, 50+ years ago. The protagonist, Tess DeMello, ends her engagement to a man she loves dearly, quickly marries a stranger, and moves to Hickory, North Carolina. Hickory is a small town struggling with racial tension and the hardships imposed by World War II. Tess finds out her new husband, an extremely successful furniture manufacturer, is quite mysterious: he often stays out all night, hides money, and is totally uninterested in any physical contact with his new wife. Although her new husband tries to give her everything she might want, Tess feels trapped and desperately wants out of the unhappy situation: “I hadn’t been happy in so long, I doubted a new house was going to fix what was wrong with me.”
The people of Hickory love and respect her husband, and see her as an outsider. When Tess is blamed for the death of a prominent citizen in an accident, she is treated with scorn and derision. She begins to feel like she is being followed, and becomes more and more unhappy. The town is a classic racist town, and even the “nice people” have stereotypical views of the times, reflected in Tess’s feeling that “…it was crazy that any state in the country allowed colored and white to get married in the first place. It only created problems for everyone.”
When a sudden polio epidemic strikes the town, the townspeople band together and build a polio hospital in just a few days (!). Tess begins to work at the hospital, finding a rewarding sense of identity in caring for the young victims. But the whole mess with her husband and his horrific mother and sister continues to make her life as a married woman completely NOT what she had dreamed of. It has suspense, drama, and a surprise ending that I loved.
This will be a good choice for book clubs, with the issues of women’s rights and roles in their marriages, interracial marriage, medical ethics (as an epidemic breaks out among people of all races and religions), honesty and trust. It is an easy read, but has a lot of depth. I read it a week ago, and keep thinking about the town, the people, the situation…so it’s an easy five stars for me…and a good future choice for our book club, still going strong.
BTW, the true story of a town that built a hospital from the ground up in just a few days in order to deal with the polio epidemic is awesome!