In A Desperate Fortune, Kearsley interweaves two distinctive love stories, separated by time and place into one beautiful narrative about hope and longing and the power of love to upend our expectations and re-write sad endings.
In A Desperate Fortune, Sara Thomas is an amateur cryptologist asked to decode the diary of a young French-Scottish Jacobite. The novel follows both Sara and the diary writer, Mary Dundas as they begin new chapters in their lives and find unexpected love and acceptance.
Sara is a computer programmer by trade. But she loves cracking codes and playing with numbers often using them as way to re-focus when she is in social situations that tax her (She has Asperger’s). Her cousin Jacqui, a literary agent, convinces her to put her deciphering skills to use and accept a lucrative job offer from one of her clients, Alistair Scott, a celebrity historian. In order to decode the diary, Sara has to move to a beautiful old house in small town outside of Paris, where the owner of diary and Alistair’s old friend, Claudine resides. Sara slowly becomes part of the household, building relationships with her host, Claudine, Claudine’s house keeper Denise, Denise’s son Noah and ex-husband Luc.
Mary Dundas grew up forgotten by her family, left to be raised by her French relatives after her mother’s death. In her aunt’s household she grew up loved but still an outsider, not quite French not quite Scottish. When one of her older brother’s writes to invite her to join him and his family at the Jacobean court in Saint-Germain, she is thrilled. But she never makes it there for it turns out her brother has volunteered her to help with a covert mission to protect Jacobite operative fleeing from the English. Mary must deal with the disappointment of not being reunited with her family or sought after for herself while at the same time embracing the adventure and opportunity to remake herself in a new environment. Thrust into the company of strangers, who are even more skilled than she is at wearing masks to hide their true nature, Mary must learn to recognize friend from foe and learn to discern people’s true agendas and motivations if she is to survive long enough to make her own choices.
Kearsley shows considerable skill in structuring this story. She flips between Sara and Mary’s stories at just the right times, building suspense, while giving us satisfying chunks of narrative to digest. As the dual stories unfolded. The stories are complementary rather than parallel. In the diary Mary writes down fairy-tales that she is reinterpreting and re-telling in ways that are aspirational and contemplative. Her stories inspire, clarify issues and allow her to express issues she can’t talk about openly. While they can be read and appreciated outside by listeners and readers ignorant of her inner life, they have fuller meaning when read in the context of her life as expressed in her diary. In the same way Sara and Mary’s stories while distinct and whole, create a more expansive view of love when presented together.
I loved that Sara’s story is about learning that she can be loved and treasured for who she is. She has to let go of long-held expectations of rejection and inadequacy. Through the relationships she builds she learns that is capable of more than she ever imagined. Luc’s gentle persistent understanding helps her recognize love and accept it. Mary’s story is about finding her voice and creating a future for herself rather than waiting on others to want or remember her. She becomes the hero of her her story, claiming Hugh, when he unable a picture a future for them.
Although this is only my second Kearsley novel (My first was The Winter Sea), Kearsley has shot up to the top of my favorite author list. As a history lover, I appreciate the effort Kearsley takes in crafting her story. The historical and geographic research show in her ability to craft novels that grounded by their sense of time and place. Kearsley’s descriptions of locales, dress and customs lend her characters solidity without bogging down the narrative. Whether it is Luc and Sara wandering around street fair in Paris together or Mary tromping through a wilderness in the south of France before finding shelter with a farm family, Kearsley gives me enough for me to believe in and recognize those places in a way that lets me believe in the stories.
My only caution to someone who hasn't read Kearsley before is that while her heroes are not under-developed in anyway, they are not the focus of the story. The stories are not told from the POV, so we are not privy to their private thoughts and struggles the same way we are with the heroines.
I am eager to dive into Kearsley’s backlist and discover other heroines and romances worth my time and attention.
I received a review copy of this novel from Sourcebooks Landmark via Edelweiss