The Vespertine

I appreciate Saundra Mitchell's The Vespertine for trying to find uncharted paranormal waters in the YA market, but despite a lush depiction of 1889 Baltimore society, I was somewhat turned off by an overly-dramatic narration that seemed to take itself just a little too seriously for a book where personification of the elements was snuck in as a key relationship issue.

The book opens on a rather confusing note, but if you manage to make it through, you realize that our story deals with Amelia, a girl shut up in her brother's house and believed to be mad -- but we quickly jump back in time to see the path that brought her to that point. Fresh from Maine, Amelia is sent to board with the Stewart family who has a daughter Amelia's age so Amelia can have a Season in Baltimore and find an eligible match. Her family doesn't have much money, so this will likely be the only Season she can get, and of course, her very first dinner party has her falling for the wrong man. Nathaniel Witherspoon is a "Fourteenth," a young man paid to attend a party where otherwise there would be thirteen guests and superstition demands an addition. An artist without independent means, he is the very last person Amelia should be encouraging... but try as she might, she cannot quite help herself. Meanwhile, Amelia stumbles upon a gift that she also cannot seem to help -- when gazing in to the fading sunset light, she catches a flash of a vision that heralds the future. At first, it's an image of her new friend Zora, dancing with a young man she fancies in a gown with lilies on it. When the vision comes true, Zora begins to tell others of Amelia's gift and suddenly the girls are becoming popular with more and more people as word leaks out. They aren't always visions of consequence -- sometimes it's something as simple as a lost glove or a voyage, and with just a flash, the whole story can hardly be seen. But Amelia's visions come at a time when society is clambering for all kinds of this clairvoyant behavior -- seeing in to the future, communing with dead spirits, reading minds at parties. Others might be shams, but Amelia knows her visions are real... but some have very real consequences. What eventually drives Amelia back to Maine compromised and in shame is a twisted sequence of events that even Amelia could not have foreseen.

The two things in Mitchell's favor are her grasp of the time period coupled with the subtlety of her paranormal twist. The description of American society in 1889 pulls the reader in with her attention to detail and unique setting. I've never come across a novel set in Baltimore at this time, so it has the benefit of a city's polish with the rougher America surrounding it -- which is certainly evident in Amelia's home town of "Broken Tooth." Hardly an address a girl would care to own up to, and so the need for a girl to rise into higher society is obvious, giving the society parties and gowns a grander scale as seen through her eyes. In addition, unlike other novels where a heroine falls into an entirely new paranormal world, Amelia's world seems rather true to reality, save for her strange ability to see glimpses of the future. She cannot direct her visions, save focusing on a specific person, and there appears to be no one else with any abnormal gifts (until we start learning more about a certain someone who has a rather strong appeal for Amelia). As a result, Mitchell has formed the basic plot of a story with great potential and demonstrates her ability to write historical fiction well... so what goes wrong? Let me say that I wanted so badly to like this book. I love the published cover but I actually prefer the cover that was attached to the galley I received (pictured here). It's really quite beautiful -- but then, the published one is also pretty. I also like the idea of a slight paranormal tinge to an otherwise historical romance, as stated before. The descriptions of the time period are woven with rich detail, yet it isn't as though that attention is quite to blame for most of the characters being sketched just a little too lightly. Still, there is still plenty to interest anyone who would choose to enjoy themselves while reading it.

Unfortunately, Mitchell's writing is a bit over-wrought with flourishes and complications, particularly at moments when she's deliberately trying to be evasive with fantastic experiences that hint at the paranormal. The prologue is almost incomprehensible, which might be forgiven if Amelia actually were in any way crazy, but it still makes for a hard couple of pages to muddle through before the actual story begins. While Mitchell eventually settles into a better rhythm, the scenes which ought to be savored are the ones that suffer the most from a desire to make them that much more beautiful by offering both too much and too little for the reader to be satisfied. I worry that Mitchell spent far too long working and re-working these particular passages, for the reader should be sighing with pleasure instead of confusion. Amelia's illicit relationship with Nathaniel Witherspoon is a bit odd... they are drawn to each other without much reason, though to be fair at least Amelia seems to recognize how absurd it is to feel like she's on fire for this young artist. The ultimate explanation is acceptable, one supposes, but as a result they seem too fated for each other, which goes against all of the wonderful emotions that Mitchell had manages to describe, like a girl's anxious wait for a boy at a dance, particularly when the boy in question is totally unacceptable as a proper match. His appeal seems to rest solely in his beauty and his forbidden status -- this isn't a novel where the love interests spend time in much discussion and you feel as though they're realistically falling in love so much as they're simply attracted to each other on a number of levels. It's a pity, too, because when one learns Nathaniel's secret, he becomes much more interesting and yet we don't have much time to explore that side of him. Amelia herself is a bit one-note, but pleasantly so as a girl who doesn't realize the trouble she's falling in to. Zora, her friend, is a delight in the beginning and eventually fades into something less vibrant once she falls in love and yields up her independent character and presence to a storyline that simply needs her to play a part.

There are parts of The Vespertine where I saw great potential, but ultimately I finished the novel feeling rather disappointed. The opening of the novel is so dramatic as far as it concerns Amelia's sanity and stained reputation, but when all is played out, I was disappointed that Amelia didn't kick it up a notch and actually do something to merit it all. The ultimate ending for Amelia is predictable and somewhat anti-climactic. Such a shame, really, as the idea of a girl with flashes of clairvoyance in an otherwise realistic setting was quite intriguing -- and the actual historic detail is excellent and interesting. When all is said and done, though, Mitchell's novel only has its own sparks of good moments and is trying much too hard to shine. Perhaps her next book will find some benefit in the fact that, presumably, she'll have less time to fuss and obscure the clarity of what she's really trying to say with such affected flourishes.

ARC courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley for reviewing purposes.

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