The Woman at the Light: A Novel by Joanna Brady
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Nearly two years ago, my husband and I honeymooned in the Florida Keys. Joanna Brady's vivid descriptions of Key West--the heat, humidity, and history of "wrecking" (the practice of salvaging goods off wrecked ships for profit)--had me feeling like I was right back on the islands. Of course, that may have been due to reading most of the book while sitting in the hot sun of the terrace during my lunch breaks, but I prefer to think of it as "sensory immersion."
There really were female lightkeepers back in the 1800s, primarily widows or daughters of lightkeepers who died or became incapacitated. Emily Lowry is a fictional member of that sisterhood. When her husband vanishes without a trace, she takes over as lightkeeper of Wrecker's Cay, struggling to raise her three young children and another on the way. One day an escaped slave washes up on shore during a storm, and her children persuade her to let him stay and learn to be her assistant keeper. Emily's views on slavery evolve over the course of the next couple of years, as Andrew shifts from being a mistrusted stranger to the love of her life. But storms of all sorts blow across the islands, and nothing lasts forever. Deception and harsh social realities of the 1840s pull her family apart, and loss shadows her every turn.
I am very thankful to have read this novel in the sunshine. The constant specter of death and grief often left me feeling melancholy as it was, so I'm glad gloomy weather did not magnify that effect. I am also grateful for the times of joy and peace which balanced the mood.
What kept my rating from being five stars were the anachronisms that jerked me back out of the story, thinking, "Huh?" For example, the part where Emily notices 10-year-old Martha starting to develop breasts. It wasn't until the past two or three decades that girls starting hitting puberty so young. Before concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) began giving growth hormones to cows, chickens, and pigs and spraying everything in sight with petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, girls did not enter puberty until they were, on average, 12 to 14. Possibly as old as 16. So Martha growing breasts at age 10 seems highly improbable.
Likewise, when a visiting lightkeeper collapses on the tower stairs due to a bad heart, and he has Emily hand him his medicine, I was confused by the implication that she gives him a nitroglycerin pill to put under his tongue. Really? In an age where doctors still tried to bleed patients and balance their "humors," they had nitroglycerin pills? I sincerely doubt that.
And what was up with the random pot-smoking? I could understand the first time as being a plot device to break down inhibitions, but why continue? What did it have to do with anything else in the story? It added no value, in my opinion. Rather, it lowered my opinion of the characters who partook. And of the author.
Still, it was a delightful book overall--a haunting love story, set in a unique time and place.
For readers' advisors: setting and character doorways are primary. Story is secondary. There are a few scenes with sexual content but nothing especially graphic.
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