The Vespertine, by Saundra Mitchell
Release Date: March 7, 2011
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Received: Net Galley
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
In the summer of 1899, country girl Amelia is sent to stay with relatives in Baltimore for the social season in order to find a suitable husband. The season begins joyfully with friendships and a number of attractive young men, but Amelia’s fun is interrupted by startling visions that appear to her in the light of the setting sun. Amelia and her cousin Zora begin accepting callers for private readings. As the town clamors for Amelia to read their futures, Amelia finds her heart pulled toward the decidedly unsuitable Nathaniel, an artist below her station. Balancing the fine line between propriety and passion, tension grows as Amelia’s visions show her increasingly disturbing events.
The book opens in the fall of 1899, after the events of the story have already transpired. We learn that tragedy has struck and Amelia has been left a ruined madwoman. To say this is an ominous opening is an understatement. I was saturated with a feeling of dread throughout the entire story, knowing that whatever happened would ultimately lead to a tragic end.
I was completely captivated. My mind was racing with questions right from the start. What happened to Amelia? What drove her mad? What is the nature of the tragedy? The dark allusions to cursed visions pulled me in further. I couldn’t wait to find out the story surrounding these visions and how the paranormal aspect would be woven into the story.
On the other hand, however, this somber beginning tainted my enjoyment of the romance. We know from the start that Amelia is a ruined woman, and in 1899 that usually meant a woman trusted her heart to an untrustworthy man. Knowing how Amelia’s relationship ended up, I had a very hard time liking Nathaniel. I constantly viewed him with suspicion and resentment.
In some ways, though, Nathaniel was an attractive romantic lead. There were some sensual scenes that I couldn’t help but get caught up in. Mitchell has a real gift with words and it shines in these scenes. Their behavior is basically PG-13, but her writing made these scenes smolder. There were a number of sentences throughout the book (both in the sexy scenes and in others) that caught my attention to the point where I stopped to reread and admire them. I also must point out how impressed I was by Michell's ability to so convincingly write in an 1899 tone and style. This is a big change from her previous book (modern, American Southern) and really makes her stand out to me as a convincing and versatile author.
Still, despite these scenes, I never really warmed up to Nathaniel. He took far too many liberties, and while there is something dangerously attractive about a man flaunting social conventions for love, it turns distasteful when he has just as little regard for the reputation of his lady. I did not like that about him, and in turn I also thought less of Amelia for allowing this sort of ruination.
It also struck me as rather rude of Amelia to so blatantly flaunt her social breaches while she was a guest in her family’s home. I may sound stuffy, but her behavior was a reflection upon them, and she seemed to care very little about how her actions would affect their reputations. I had a hard time liking Amelia as a character and feeling much sympathy for her eventual circumstances.
Even with my dislike of the two main characters, I still enjoyed this book. The side characters, while not developed as much as I would have liked, were interesting and fun to read about. I was much more invested in their stories and romances. The mysterious impending tragedy kept suspense high and I practically flew through the chapters to find out what would happen next.
I was confused by the paranormal aspects of the story. Amelia’s abilities were explained well enough in action, but I was frustrated at the lack of reason behind her talents. I have no idea why she receives visions and why only at sunset (and only in the presence of the sun, I think?). Is this ability a common or accepted occurrence in Amelia’s world? I don’t know and I would have liked to have read an explanation. The other abilities completely puzzled me. What exactly were they? Were they connected to Amelia's abilities? I just didn’t understand them at all.
The climax of the story is astounding. I wasn’t expecting it at all. With the ominous lead up and hints at something absolutely terrible happening, I was wondering if the eventual reveal would live up to the hype. All I can say without spoiling the ending is that it most certainly did live up to the hype. I have to give Mitchell credit here, she delivered.
My lower rating is because of my personal dislike of Amelia and Nathaniel and my confusion over the paranormal aspects of the book. The story overall was enjoyable, so take my rating with a grain of salt and read this one for yourself. You might also be interested in checking out Logan E. Turner's review. She loved The Vespertine so much her review is even motivating me to do a reread!