Part historical fiction, part murder mystery, part romance, The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon (available in stores/online now, see links below) is a compelling read. This is a wholly-satisfying story about Evelyn Gifford, a woman finding her way in 1924 London -- in an inhospitable professional environment as one of the first female attorneys; in the aftermath of World War I and the searing loss of her beloved (almost revered) brother James.
McMahon creates accessible characters that you really care about, which might come as a surprise given the restrained, buttoned-up British kind of tone to the book. The detail in McMahon's writing is fantastic and effectively sets the scenes in your mind. While the overall tone of the novel is quite understated, you will find yourself cheering for Evelyn as she perseveres through challenge after challenge. The formality of the language is lyrical rather than stilted. This is a beautiful book to read.
I took personal interest in Evelyn's story, being a female attorney myself. I can't imagine how hard it was in Evelyn's time to enter court and deal with clients; at least now, people have become somewhat accustomed to the sight of a woman in law. Still, I found the profession to be stubbornly sexist (I haven't practiced in almost 10 years), even before I had my son. Trying to be a mother and a part-time attorney was next to impossible, and I had two male bosses that were generally flexible and willing to accommodate my attempt at balancing parenthood and practicing law.
Evelyn is nowhere near confronting the idea of being a working mom; she has quite enough on her plate. She still lives at home with her mother, aunt and grandmother. Her father has passed away, but not before the crippling blow of his son's death. Evelyn was a poor substitute for her brother, and it seems no one in her family hid their feelings about this. She was expected to be the head of household (a stuffy, oppressive household that McMahon skillfully brings to life); she was somehow made responsible for leading the multigenerational mess of women. The mess grows even messier when a woman and boy show up at the door, claiming to be Evelyn's brother's last, wartime lover and mother of his child. (The introduction of these characters and the effect they have on all the others is absolutely delicious. The relationship Evelyn develops with her young nephew is particularly heartwarming.)
There are so many subplots; in another author's hands, the book could have been a jumbled, not-worth-the-effort disaster. McMahon somehow keeps all the plates spinning in the air. You get social justice, women's rights, family drama, class wars, murder, a poignant love story and even more, all rolled up into one book. McMahon provides us with a rich and thoughtful slice of life and a cast of believable, engaging characters (and there are many!).
You will become engrossed in Evelyn's quietly revolutionary existence. You watch her story unfold and her character grow; I almost felt like a proud parent at the end of the novel. The story will leave you musing the life choices we make and resolving to find the inner strength Evelyn summons when it matters most. You will contemplate love and whether you should hold on to it no matter what, even if it means risking your own life, or whether you bravely choose to give it up in order to blossom as an individual, even at an improbable age. Evelyn is a heroine in every sense of the word. I highly recommend The Crimson Rooms.
I wrote this review while participating in a blog campaign by MotherTalk on behalf of G.P. Putnam's Sons / Riverhead and received a copy of the book to facilitate my candid review. Mom Central sent me a gift card to thank me for taking the time to participate.