“Two months after her husband died on November 12, 1851, Eliza Ripple stopped writing letters to her mother back in Kalamazoo.”
This is the newest novel by Jane Smiley, who has now written a million of them. She’s not Joyce Carol Oates, but she’s been publishing for more than 40 years now, and has been pretty prolific. In general, I liked this novel, but it felt a little thin at times, but more so a little underdeveloped. I don’t mean the writing is bad at all, but it feels like there’s more story in this novel that was left on the table to tell, but what we have is pretty short in comparison. It’s a 240 page novel, but the story in encompasses and the world it wants to creates feels much larger.
The story begins with Eliza Ripple, the daughter of a factor owner in Michigan, having married and moved to California, finding herself now widowed when her husband has been murdered. Not to worry, as she didn’t want to marry him anyway, and was more or less made to to keep her parents religion. But she’s in Monterey, California now and husbandless. The title of the novel comes from a brothel owner telling Eliza her sense of the prostitution work as Eliza begins working in the brothel. Over all, as far as brothels in boomtowns in California in the 1850s goes, things could be worse. Mrs Barker doesn’t allow violence against the girls as a rule, and tries to look out for them.
Eliza is a reader and her fascination with the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe leads her to investigating the deaths of some of the girls in the brothel. (I said it could be worse, but not that it was good). The novel then mostly becomes a mystery story as Eliza and a compatriot apply those detection lessons from Poe’s writing to a mystery of their own. Like I said, it’s a little more light than I thought the novel could handle, and that’s a shame as I was enjoying myself, only to find it over too soon.