Monday, July 24, 2017

Review - Lady of Milkweed Manor

Original Title: Lady of Milkweed Manor
Series: -
Author: Julie Klassen
Published: January 1st, 2008

Publisher: Bethany House 

I’m totally speechless of how brilliant this book is. It left me with my mouth open, after making me gasp, cheer and almost cry throughout its pages, and makes me want to say to all those writers out there, “this is how you write a historical novel”. Julie Klassen takes the best from both historical romance and fiction, and blends it together to create these wonderful novels that keep you up at night, needing to know what will happen next. She’s definitely one of the best authors I’ve ever read, and anything she writes its guaranteed to have a solid research foundation, an elegant writing, and an emotionally gripping plot that will grab you and won’t let go.

This isn’t your typical Regency story. You won’t find balls, parties, fine dresses and sweet romance on it. It’s overall darker than that. From the very start you know that something went horribly wrong, and Charlotte Lamb, the twenty-year-old protagonist, is about to pay the dire consequences. Already in the first scene, things looked grim, as she packed her belongings to leave her home, knowing that she wouldn’t get anything back from that life. She’s was a fallen woman about to fall even lower. Her family had cut all ties with her, wanted her out of the house as soon as possible, and her father even forbade her maternal aunt to make contact with her, which, in my opinion, is not only overly cruel, but an order there’s no reason to obey; it bothered me that she didn’t decide to break the rules, given that her niece’s situation was a lot more important than her reputation, and she needed her family more than ever. As Charlotte arrived at Milkweed Manor, nothing looked good, not even the house in itself. Honestly, I first thought she was going to enter a brothel, as the implications seemed to suggest. But when Mrs. Moorling said Manor Home for Unwed Mothers, I confess my jaw dropped, and I thought, “this can only go from bad to worse”. That was serious indeed.

Although Charlotte wouldn’t say, it was somewhat guessable that Charles Harris was the father of her child, as there was no other option, save William Bentley (I thought it was him, at first). Charlotte and Charles shared only one unwise night of passion, and although we get to read that scene, there’s nothing explicit; we readers get to know what we need to know, and nothing more, as the book focuses mainly on Charlotte dealing with the consequences of that night. Something I loved about her is how we can read the birth and growing of her strength both as a woman and human being. She paid for her mistakes, but became selfless, and found more love with the other women in the Manor and her son, than with her own family. She got beaten down, but still managed to get up and keep fighting, making the ultimate sacrifice as she gave her son to his father, Harris, in replacement of his own stillborn baby, to save her cousin Katherine from madness. It broke her heart (and mine), but she understood that she was doing what was best for her son. I don’t doubt she would have done anything to take care of him on her own, but at least she knew he would be taken care of. And from that decision on, she grew and became stronger, as she decided to help in the Manor the best she could, instead of sinking in her pain (and she would have had a good excuse for it). Even when she could have re-entered society, she chose not to, as she didn’t belong to that world anymore, after seeing all those things she saw.

On the other hand, we have Daniel Taylor, the hero in this story. He had met Charlotte in the past, as Dr. Webb’s apprentice in Doddington, and had a crush on her. But years passed, he married another woman, and later on, we find out she was also hospitalized in the Manor, and was also pregnant. It was their baby girl, Anne, that Charlotte started nursing with her own milk, giving a new purpose to her torn-apart life, given Lizette’s puerperal insanity, while Daniel took care of her. It’s heartbreaking to see him rediscovering his feelings for Charlotte, as they crash with the love he used to feel for his beautiful wife, now lost to him to madness. He couldn’t deny that he cared for Charlotte, all the while trying to heal and get back the woman he married. It took me a few chapters to start rooting for them, as they were so far away from each other, and with so many issues for their own, because I didn’t see the possibility of a love story, but, as I said before, this isn’t your typical romance.

There’s a few things I would like to mention. First, John Taylor, Daniel’s father. I felt that the plot around him could have been easily removed from the book, and nothing would have changed, save him delivering Charlotte’s baby. Daniel took Charlotte to this Miss Mardsen’s house, in a completely useless scene that doesn’t serve much of a purpose. The topic about John Taylor’s mistakes as a surgeon are briefly mentioned later, but I think that the book could have gone just the same without it. Although a complicated relationship with his father gives Daniel another level of character depth, letting us see how many problems he is dealing with, and his strength as he fights to make everything right, that scene just isn’t useful to any future plot point. On the other hand, William Bentley –Harris’ nephew and heir–, felt like a useless character too. I mean, he acted as Bea’s suitor, but ultimately chose to marry another woman for her money, and, in my opinion, that entire subplot could have been avoided, because it didn’t add much to the main plot. The Lamb sisters already vied over Harris’ admiration and that’s enough, without adding someone else to the mix. I guess his part in the story could be read as a way to say that, even without Charlotte, her father and sister continued with their lives as if nothing had happened, although more bitterly. Their attitude made me so angry! One would think that a vicar would know about forgiveness and righting wrongdoings, but he died without wanting to ever see her again. He chose his reputation and his name over his own daughter! Same as Beatrice, who decided her sister was dead to her, but even after parting ways, she managed to keep vying with her over Harris! I can’t wrap my head around that a family could do that, even back then. It’s already bad enough that Harris, even after professing his “love” for Charlotte, didn’t marry her after ruining her, but becoming strangers with your own family? I can’t understand how someone who loves you (a parent, a sibling) doesn’t consider you a priority, especially when you need them the most.

In fact, the only one willing to help Charlotte, that went beyond rules and gossip, was her cousin Katherine, married to Harris, and foster mother to Edmund (without knowing it). I didn’t like her as a person, but at least she was the only one willing to help her cousin, when her own family deserted her. She never suspected or knew her real son had died at birth, and she died giving birth to her second child, who died along with her. Early on in the book, we are told that pregnancies were risky for Katherine, given her age, so when I read that she was going to have another baby, I could guess she wouldn’t make it. I’ve seen her death referred as a badly written plot point created to open the road for Charlotte to be reunited with her son, but I don’t see it that way, because that, actually doesn’t happen. She gets to see Edmund but doesn’t say a word about her being her real mother, nor attempts to do so.

As for Lizette Taylor’s story, it was a bit hard to swallow, because she wasn’t in her right mind, but it’s brilliantly written how her relationship with Daniel started to crumble, as insanity, jealousy and homesickness took over her. She saw Charlotte as a threat, as she nursed their daughter, and didn’t fail to see her husband’s attachment to her. She was mad, but not stupid, and clearly, the only way to get her out of the way to develop Charlotte and Daniel’s story was her demise. But it was incredibly tragic, and not at all what I was expecting. I confess I almost cry when I thought Lizette, in her madness, had drowned her baby with her, but then I let out a sigh of relief when I read Charlotte had her. As I said, this book is so gripping, that I read it at the edge of my seat, actually concerned about the characters, feeling their pain, and in this particular moment, all the weight of Daniel’s burdens over his shoulders, his confusion, his mixed feelings for both his wife and Charlotte, his helplessness in his attempts to recover the wife he fell in love with, knowing that there was no turning back to what it used to be, and not knowing what to do in regards of Anne’s future. It’s heartbreaking, and for that brilliantly done. It makes these characters a lot more human and relatable.

I loved Daniel and Charlotte’s story. It’s not your typical romance, as there were sad and difficult circumstances what reunited them in the Manor, after so many years. Theirs is not a happy story, but there’s a lot more than romance going on. The two of them are deep characters, they feel like real people, with both virtues and flaws, struggles and fears, and you can understand how and how much they got not only to love each other, but to need each other. After so many years of Charlotte taking care of Anne as if she were her own daughter, after everything they went through together, I understand how they couldn’t have lived without each other, and for a moment it bothered me that they still had this master/governess relationship and formalities between them, when they both knew their bond was a lot deeper than that. For a second in which my heart sank, I believed she had accepted Harris’ long overdue proposal, thinking of her son, but for once she stopped listening to the voice of duty, and thought of her own happiness. Along the whole book, milkweeds are mentioned over and over again, and I loved how they were a metaphor of their relationship, and of Charlotte herself: her family thought her a weed, something that needed to be pulled out from their lives so they could have a perfectly ordered existence, without the blemish of something that would take root and ruin them. But Daniel saw beyond that. He saw her healing powers, her many virtues, merits and talents, that were always there, but nobody cared about, choosing to discard her, to treat her like the disposable weed they considered she was, when in fact, there was so much more in Charlotte Lamb that what met the eyes. I loved Daniel for still loving her and caring for her when the world thought she didn’t deserve more than rejection and her rightful punishment for ruining her reputation, as she were the sole culprit for her situation. She learned from her mistakes and became a better, stronger, person, ready to face the world once more and make her life count, even with all her disadvantages. 

The only flaw in their story is their first kiss! I hate when it is left for the very last page. They literally kiss at the last paragraph before the epilogue, and such a thing is always disappointing. I’d have been rooting for that kiss, and when they finally had it, it ended before we could truly relish on their joy, savoring the moment after so much expectation and sorrow!

A great thing is that there’s not a happy ending for everyone. This is a story of forgiveness, of how love heals the wounds, and states that, as there’s not one perfect life, neither there’s a perfect happy ending. Charlotte doesn’t get her child back, though I had hoped she would at some point, and it left me thinking, once Edmund and Anne get married, will she ever tell him? He deserved to know, and, if she decided to do so, that would be an excellent scene I would read biting my nails. It’s like the story continues, even when we turn the last page. As I said before, these character feel so like real people, that you just know their lives will continue long before the book has ended!

Although I couldn’t do justice to every little detail of this story, and left many things out (like Sally Mitchell and Thomas Cox’s story), I can’t finish without mentioning the excellent research Julie Klassen did before writing this book. I knew nothing about the world of wet nurses and foundlings, and I found it utterly fascinating. It’s clear when an author writes knowing what he/she’s doing, it’s visible when the foundation is solid and carefully studied, and I personally love a book more when it’s actually historical, with everything that means. This story is filled with historically accurate details that make it even more of a gem. Julie Klassen is an amazing, passionate author, and everything she writes is worth reading, as she creates deep, layered characters and stories that will keep you at the edge of your sit. She’s definitely among the best authors I’ve ever read! 


  1. I love Julie Klassen, the best author out there.