Song of the Lark

The Brightest Flame
by Sonya Birmingham
(Leisure $5.99, R) ISBN 0-8439-4564-8
The first four chapters of The Brightest Flame concern the struggles of Irish immigrant Molly Kilmartin. The obviously well researched descriptions of the deplorable conditions of travel in steerage, the demoralizing immigration process and the first overwhelming glimpses of 1880’s New York City were engaging. But once the author reaches the romantic elements of the story, things quickly fall apart and the prose becomes purple in the extreme.

Molly meets newspaper editor and publisher Burke Lassiter while sneaking a walk along the first class deck onboard the ship. They are intrigued with one another and meet several times throughout the journey. Molly has been keeping a journal of her experiences on the trip and allows Lassiter to read it. He’s impressed with her ability to express her feelings, although the mechanics of her writing are terrible.

When they separate at the end of the voyage, Molly thinks it unlikely the two will meet again. But after she is infuriated by an editorial Lassiter prints in his newspaper, she writes a lengthy letter that he publishes. Remembering the vivid depictions in her journal, he decides to offer her a job. Things progress quickly from this point and Molly becomes the toast of New York as an investigative reporter. The reader is asked to suspend disbelief that a poorly educated immigrant woman could so quickly ascend to the heights of the newspaper business without so much as a hindrance.

The relationship between Molly and Lassiter (Molly insists on referring to him by his last name only) is anything but romantic. Lassiter is focused entirely on his own needs. Nothing takes precedence over the expansion of his newspaper empire. He lies repeatedly to Molly in order to advance his sexual pursuit. He tells her his fiancée, whom he is marrying only for her money, is actually his cousin. He intentionally gets Molly drunk on two occasions in order to have sex with her and then offers to support her as his mistress. His only consideration is the importance of keeping Molly at the newspaper in order to increase circulation.

Molly is no more sympathetic. She frequently descends into childish hysterics, slapping Lassiter across the face more times than I could count. It’s impossible to understand their attraction to one another.

The final chapters concern an over the top coast to coast train race between Molly and Lassiter, with a $50,000 prize going to the winner. Lassiter, being the great guy that he is, cheats to make certain the odds are in his favor. When these two finally get together, their selfish behavior makes it difficult to believe the relationship will stand the test of time.

Perhaps if the author had expanded the chapters concerning the plight of the Irish immigrant and eliminated the romance entirely, this might have been an absorbing read.

--Karen Lynch

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