Date read: 31 July 2017
Published by Grove Atlantic, August 2017
Verdict: I might never eat pears again.
When her father and step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden – thirty two years old and still living at home – immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.
Meanwhile, others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and their own stories to tell: Lizzie’s unmarried older sister, a put-upon Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie’s uncle to take care of a problem.
This unforgettable debut makes you question the truth behind one of the great unsolved mysteries, as well as exploring power, violence and the harsh realities of being a woman in late nineteenth century America.
There are many good things in this book that would make this a great choice for a different reader. Sadly I am not that reader. I was super excited about this book – it was on plenty of people’s “most anticipated” lists, both covers are absolutely stunning, and the bit of the blurb that I read sounded exciting. I had some misconceptions though: I did not realize that this book would be gritty historical fiction, I did not realize that Lizzie Borden was 32, and for some reason I thought it would have magical realist pieces.
Sarah Schmidt sets out to retell the story of the Borden murders – murders so famous that most people in the English speaking world have heard of them (I was not one of those people). Told in alternating viewpoints following Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and an involved bystander Benjamin. Every single one of those characters, save maybe Bridget, is unbelievably awful. They are nasty, self-involved, blind to their own faults, and unbearable to spend time with. Especially Lizzie’s chapters made me want to throw things – she is without a doubt the worst person I ever had to listen to (figuratively). Every time her name was above the chapter, I groaned. I know many people do not mind unlikable characters but I think I just need to be honest with myself here. I am not one of those people; I need the characters I spend time with to be at least sympathetic or have any redeeming traits.
Sarah Schmidt has an undeniably brilliant way of painting vivid pictures that engage the readers senses in a near unique way. Sadly, here it is mostly used to paint a vivid picture of the awful living conditions of this wealthy family (the father was famously stingy). There are long and evocative descriptions of vomit, sweat, blood, period blood, and everything else nasty. The characters all eat fruit in a way that apparently leaves them covered in its juices. They do not swallow, they gulp (side note: I think this is my alltime least favourite word – it might be because I am not a native speaker but for me the action of gulping sounds super loud in my head).
This is not a bad book but it is one I did not enjoy one bit. I was undeniably the wrong reader. Sarah Schmidt has a very evocative way with words and I think she succeeds in telling her story in an original way; I thought the time jumps worked very well and the execution was really well-done. I just did not enjoy reading this and was sad to be so glad to be done with this book. But I was very glad.
First sentence: “He was still bleeding.”
I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!