By Nancy Bilyeau

I was positive that Kinsey had recommended this book to me, but when I texted her to tell her how much I was enjoying it, she was like, so, tell me about this book?

It’s a murder mystery, sort of: there’s definitely someone killing young women on the Coney Island boardwalk, but it is sort of in the background for most of the book. It’s also got a lot of the earmarks of gothic mystery: a very wealthy family with simmering tensions and a young woman trying to escape the strictures of the family.

The whole book is so delicately written: it is clearly much better to be super rich in New York in 1910 than it is to be super poor, but it still seems to suck pretty badly.  (It is probably by far the best to be comfortably middle class.) I didn’t expect myself to sympathize quite so much with such a wealthy and indulged protagonist, but Bilyeau does a great job of showing how imprisoning and insulating/isolating this level of wealth does. Peggy wants very much to be a good person, but her very existence within the power that her family’s wealth yields is a threat to everyone around her not equally protected by wealth.

After being coerced by her family into attending a summer retreat to Brooklyn shore, she falls into a star-crossed romance with an immigrant artist on the boardwalk. As her naivety with the everyday struggles of the rest of the world threatens his life and livelihood, I did wonder what exactly he saw in her. Peggy is incredibly sympathetic, but not always likeable, and I credit the writing immensely for that. She has such good intentions and tries so hard, but often falls back into arrogance and selfishness in times of stress. It illustrates so well how this type of upbringing can be corrupting despite one’s best intentions. (For me, the artist, Stefan, was the weakest character, sort of an unrealistic ideal that made me grudgingly suspect him of fortune-hunting, agreeing with many of the other characters.)

I did think the ending fell a little short of the suspense leading up. The more I read, the greater appreciation I have for mystery authors – it is really hard to set up a puzzle and then pull off a solution that fits all the pieces while still being a surprise at the end. It’s a rarer skill than I’d realized, and this book doesn’t quite meet it, but it doesn’t negate the beautifully atmospheric pages leading up to it.

Also, I recommend the final author’s note, since her description of which real-life people and places she based characters and settings on is fascinating!

A Sky Painted Gold

A Sky Painted Gold

I recently took a trip that involved many, many hours on a plane. I usually use flights like this to catch up on movies I never got around to seeing, but this time none of the movies really called to me, so I watched that Zac Efron as Ted Bundy thing (he was good, the movie is not worth your time) and then decided to just read instead. Over my many flights I read Daisy Jones and the Six (fun, quick, perfect vacation read, a fiction version of an oral history of a 70s rock band), One Day in December (perfectly nice rom com story set in London), and most of the latest Elizabeth Gilbert City of Girls (so far, pretty fun, but I’m still finishing up so no promises). But the book that I want to tell you about is a YA coming-of-age story called a A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood. I have no idea where I heard about this book–a copy was on my Kindle but my library doesn’t have it, so I must have bought it? On someone’s recommendation? I don’t remember any of this, but it was exactly the kind of book I like and I was so glad it was there waiting for me.

Without giving too much away, Lou is a teenage girl who lives with her big, wild family on the coast in Cornwall between the World Wars. She has dreams, but leaving home and living a life outside her village seems impossible. She stumbles into a friendship with some local aristocrats and gets sucked into their Bright Young Things circle of fun, but what will happen when they ultimately go off to their city lives and she is left behind in Cornwall? This description makes her sound like an ugly duckling among swans, but I think one of the smartest things the book does is acknowledge those optics, while never making Lou seem dumb or lesser than some of the more glittering characters.

The book contains many, many things I like, including:

  • Detailed descriptions of elegant clothing
  • English village life
  • Characters enjoying lots of cocktails
  • A little bit of romance
  • Sympathetic parents, so the main story isn’t about how her parents just don’t understand

Overall, A Sky Painted Gold is a fairly traditional story, nothing terribly surprising is happening here, but it’s got a modern air about it. It was like rereading an old favorite from childhood, but without discovering any weird racist or sexist things that you’d forgotten about but that now make you cringe.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dreamy, romantic interwar England coming-of-age.

You might also like: I’ve definitely recommended all these before, but A Sky Painted Gold fits so well into a set of books I love that includes Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets.

The Signature of All Things

Lots of people make fun of Eat, Pray, Love. Of the overly earnest writing, of the privilege of a rich white woman writing about solving her problems by taking a year-long trip around the world, of the (admittedly terrible) Julia Roberts movie version. But you know what? I like Eat, Pray, Love! I have read it more than once! And I love Elizabeth Gilbert, who in interviews always seems fun and realistic about her crazy self-help book success. Also, her TED talk is pretty amazing. But I admit that I was a little wary of her latest book, a novel about a female scientist in 19th century America. Gilbert’s voice is so distinctive, and in her non-fiction novels is so specific to her experiences, that I was not sure how that might work in a period fiction piece. But The Signature of All Things worked for me.

It’s a long, sweeping book that tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a Philadelphia heiress in the early 1800s who bucks convention by not marrying and focusing instead on her study of mosses. The books her life from the day she’s born (and actually starts off with a really lengthy but about her father, explaining how the Whittakers got to Philadelphia), but most of the big action in the book takes place when Alma is in her fifties and her previously predictable life suddenly sends her in new directions (literally). A woman studying moss doesn’t sounds like a rip-roaring story, but Alma’s story takes all sorts of turns and did not end up anywhere I expected.

The story itself is interesting and twisty and detailed, and Gilbert clearly did lots of research on the time period and the science involved. But my favorite thing about it was the voice–it sounds like Elizabeth Gilbert. If you’ve read her non-fiction, you’ll know that she’s funny and a little irreverent, and all of that is right there in The Signature of All Things. The book reads like a period piece with characters that seem of the time, but there is still this slightly wry undercurrent the peeks out. I recently read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, another piece of historical fiction that has gotten rave reviews. I didn’t write about here because it felt like a slog and I couldn’t quite articulate why, but reading The Signature of All Things helped me make sense of it. The Luminaries felt very straightforward, as if it could have been written in 1800, and it didn’t have that sense of humor running through it. That irreverence that Elizabeth Gilbert brings made all the difference for me and kept me hooked through Alma’s whole, incredible story.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Chewy, three-dimensional tale

You might also like: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, which is historical fiction about a female scientist (although it is based on a real person) or State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, about a modern day woman consumed in her scientific work.