New Faces 12:

An interview with Ellen Fisher

 
The Light in the Darkness
by Ellen Fisher
(Bantam, $5.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-57922-3
*****
The only financial reward your devoted TRR reviewers receive is an occasional free book. Sometimes they are in galley form and sometimes they are bound ARCs. I received a bound ARC of Ellen Fisher's first novel. So why, on my weekly book run today, did I proceed to fork over $5.50 to buy a copy of same? After all, the cover isn't that great. To put it simply, I want The Light in the Darkness to sell lots and lots of copies so that Bantam will keep publishing Fisher's books and I was doing my part.

I really like this book! To begin with, I like the setting. There aren't that many books set in colonial Virginia and not many of those are as successful at capturing the contradictions of that world: the elegant society of the planters built on the backs of slaves; the primitive beauty of a land only marginally tamed; the hard lives of the poor whites struggling to survive. Fisher brings the stark contrasts of this world to life.

I also like the story, although I wasn't sure I was going to at first. I have never been much taken with King Cophetua and the beggar maid plots, but I have to say that Fisher pulls this one off in grand style.

And, of course, I liked the characters. Edward Greyson is a marvelous tortured hero. Eight years earlier his new bride, Diana, had been brutally murdered. Many suspected Grey (as he is known) of the crime, but nothing could be proven. So for eight years, Grey had wallowed in his despair, mourning the woman he had loved to distraction, and sinking deeper and deeper in to an alcoholic haze.

But despite his behavior and the suspicions that surround him, Grey's wealth and position make him a highly desirable marriage prospect. Moreover, his sister Catherine keeps nagging him about his duty to his name and his need to get over Diana. So, when, while visiting friends, he saves a tavern wench from a beating and she begs him to save him from her cruel uncle, rather than hiring her as a servant (which was what she hoped for), he decides to marry her. This bedraggled, illiterate, unattractive girl seems like the perfect bride for a man who hates himself.

Jennifer Leigh Wilton has lived with her tavern-keeping uncle since her parents' deaths eight years earlier. At seventeen, she has forgotten what it was like to live in a loving family as she works like a slave and suffers the bullying and beatings of her uncle. When Grey saves her from her uncle and proceeds to marry her, she sees him as a hero. But he works hard to disabuse her of this view.

When they arrive at his plantation, it becomes clear to Jennifer that her new husband has no use for her and no intention of helping her adapt to her new life. He would be happy if she slept in the stables and worked in the cookhouse. But his sister refuses to accept such a state of affairs. Catherine recognizes Grey's motivations and decides to take Jennifer in hand and turn her into a proper lady. Maybe thus will Grey be forced to turn from his self-destructive course.

Jennifer's transformation is helped by the fact that when she is cleaned up and properly dressed, she turns out to be a lovely young woman. It is also helped by the fact that she is bright and talented and anxious to improve herself. Thus, her emergence from her cocoon seems quite believable.

Of course, the new Jennifer causes Grey no end of problems. He wants no lovely new wife who engenders in him feelings that he had buried with Diana. So he does everything he can to turn Jennifer against him. And he might have succeeded, had Jennifer not discovered the letters he had written to Diana and encountered the man he had been before tragedy struck.

There are many barriers to Jennifer's and Grey's finding happiness, most of them erected by Grey. There is always a danger in such a plot that the heroine will come across as a self-sacrificing wimp, willing to bear any abuse in the cause of love. But Fisher avoids this pitfall. Her Jennifer is too strong, too intelligent and too determined to become merely a cipher.

Of course, always beneath the surface is the question of who killed Diana. Even Grey seems to share the general consensus that he is guilty, although he has no memory of the events surrounding her death. Jennifer refuses to accept the idea that Grey is a murderer. But, then, who killed Diana? Solving this mystery is clearly the key to their future.

I debated long and hard about the rating for this book. Clearly, I am recommending it, but does it deserve the coveted five hearts? Then, I realized that I am going to keep this book and revisit it whenever I need a well told tale of the redemptive power of love. So five hearts it is. This is a most auspicious debut book and I expect that Ellen Fisher is an author we will be enjoying for years to come.

--Jean Mason


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