The Nightingale’s Song by Kathleen Eschenburg
(HarperTorch, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-81569-9
*****
Tired of light, fluffy romantic stories with no meat to them? Hungry for a historical that isn’t of the wallpaper variety? Looking for a book where you can literally fall in love with every complex character? Well gentle reader, look no further, because Kathleen Eschenburg’s debut is likely to cure what ails you.

Mary Margaret “Maggie” Quinn was a mere 12 years old when she fled Ireland for America. When her ship docked in Baltimore, Maryland, she was also an orphan, having lost her mother during passage. It is on the docks that Maggie meets Father Hugh Fitzhugh, who takes her to live at St. Columba’s orphanage.

Fast forward 14 years and Maggie is now a young woman teaching at St. Columba’s with plans to become a nun. Still haunted by Ireland, Maggie has filled the void by becoming attached to many of her young charges - especially a 5-year-old named Clara. However, he fragile world is soon rocked when Dr. Gordon Kincaid comes calling.

Gordon too, is a haunted man - haunted by memories of a Civil War that left him with a bad leg, a 12 year old son he has all but abandoned to his brother’s care, and the shadows of an illegitimate birth. He arrives at St. Columba’s per his late father’s wishes, only to discover that he in fact, has another child - a 5-year-old girl named Clara.

Gordon wants a second chance, to build a life that he long thought himself devoid of, and to do so he wants to bring the daughter he never knew he had home to Virginia. However, to do so, he will have to convince his old friend, Mother Bernadette, that the girl would be better off with him than another couple - and for that, he turns to Maggie Quinn for help.

Maggie is an interesting character, as the author honestly portrays what life was like for many Irish immigrants. America may have taken many of the tired, huddled masses, but that doesn’t mean they were accepted with open arms. Gordon is a wounded man who hides much of his pain behind a roguish charm. He is coasting through his life, alone in his pain, when he meets Maggie - and then something begins to happen - he begins to feel again.

Add into this mix a plethora of small details and this story soon sparkles. The author weaves in many believable conflicts - namely Maggie’s Catholic faith to Gordon’s Protestant, the prejudice, and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. Life is not easy. Love is not easy. Maggie herself says it best, “Love was not supposed to be this way, so hurtful your belly was twisted in knots and even your bones ached with the pain.” Amen. Eschenburg makes her characters work for the happily-ever-after, rendering this reader emotionally spent and satisfied.

I know a book is a keeper when I begin imagining sequels featuring almost every secondary character. Namely, Jamie O’Connor, an Irish dockworker that grew up with Maggie and has loved her fiercely since she was a child. There is also Gordon’s son, Gordy, a hurt young boy desperate for his father’s love. The author does have plans for a future book featuring Gordon’s brother, Royce, and his wife, Annabelle.

The Nightingale’s Song does show signs of being a debut novel - namely there are some pacing problems in the beginning. However, this was barely an issue for me, as I slowly found myself falling under a spell, hopelessly in love with this story. Complex characters, an engaging secondary cast, realistic conflict, and an honest love story - Eschenburg has jumped to my auto-buy list with just one book. This is why I read historical romance - Harper can’t publish her next book fast enough.

--Wendy Crutcher


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