by Marie Benedict
Coming into this, I knew very little about Andrew Carnegie, and I admit that I wasn’t sure it would be a romance or not. As a book, it’s a fun, engaging read that’s over all too quickly. The author has a crisp voice that I found very well-suited to historical fiction, and the main character in particular is beautifully crafted. Details are excellent, but not overwhelming or gratuitous. The emotional tone is also a glowing point for me–there’s such a good balance. Never any maudlin displays that go beyond believability, while also avoiding the dreaded robotic drone of lacking emotion.
Clara Kelley is from a farming family in Ireland, sent to America to bolster their income. When she arrives, she hears a man call her name. Although she’s pretty sure this posh man in a bowler hat is looking for a different woman with the same name, Clara takes the opportunity. She has to tell some lies and mask her accent a bit, but she makes it to the formidable Mrs Seeley, a placement agency owner who intended the other Clara to be Mrs Carnegie’s lady’s maid. Clara makes herself indispensable by realising that Mrs Carnegie is new to society and needs assurance as well as the high standards she more openly touts. Although Clara’s initial efforts to be a lady’s maid are blustering through with cautious guesswork, she also seeks information from a book in the library, which made her later settling into her role more believable. She meets Andrew Carnegie in the library.
I loved Clara. She’s pragmatic and firm in her convictions. She makes difficult decisions like hiding her true faith (Catholics were not popular) without doing stupid wishy-washy things that would put her in danger of losing her position. She’s realistic and not precious about pondering or accepting hard facts of life. Nor is she unfeeling. When she begins a friendship with Andrew Carnegie, she is careful to protect herself from impropriety and is wary of how a man in his position could easily destroy her life.
She does struggle to make sense of Carnegie’s inconsistent behaviour, and not just in regards to her. I had trouble with his characterisation in this book. Most of the time he reminded me of the classic lionising of Teddy Roosevelt in Hollywood films. Bright, optimistic, and irritatingly unrealistic in the refusal to examine his flaws. Of course, as I said at the start, I didn’t know much about him, so I may have just balked at his personality changing so much dependant on the company he was in.
However, it did hurt the romance for me. They have chemistry. They spend time together. But Carnegie’s behaviour is beyond mercurial. His mother is described as such, and her characterisation bears it out, but Carnegie came across to me as two different people. I found I preferred the ruthless businessman shouting at his superiors/colleagues to the egalitarian nice guy who never has an argument with Clara. He’s too perfect when he plays the love interest. It makes their early encounters look suspect, and I shared Clara’s discomfort whenever he gave her a lavish and inappropriate gift.
The supporting characters are all drawn well and add to the setting and a lot of Clara’s musings and revelations about the world. The household’s cook Mr Ford is her only friend among the servants, and her immediate family and some cousins keep her grounded and show an important contrast between the life she would have had and the one she made for herself. The Carnegies’ snooty society neighbours added some nice colour and drama as well.
Unfortunately, the ending feels rushed. While reading, I felt like Benedict tried to accomplish things that should have already been covered, some of it in an effort to tie the end to the prologue. The prologue set up some expectations that I don’t think ever really saw sufficient delivery. It’s in Carnegie’s point of view, and he thinks about Clara as if she’s a spitfire who often spoke of equality with passion, and I don’t think she ever came across as such a caricature. The pacing is fine, but the ideas introduced in the prologue kind of felt left alone until the end in an awkward and unnatural way.
The epilogue is quite good, though. It’s a thirty years later epilogue that reaches back to the author’s intent on covering Carnegie’s libraries and public works. Every side character I worried about had their subplots wrapped up nicely, and I liked how Clara chose to live her life after leaving the Carnegie household. In all, I’d say that this book is worth the time and the small hiccoughs. Mostly, said hiccoughs made me wish the book was longer, and isn’t that usually a good thing?
(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)