Monday, March 24, 2014

"A Beauty So Rare" by Tamera Alexander - a rich and rewarding read

In the second installment of her Belmont Mansion trilogy, Tamera Alexander returns to the historic Nashville home of Adelicia Acklen Cheatham.  Eleanor Braddock, Adelicia's spinster niece, is near destitute when Adelicia takes her in.  To support herself and pay for her father's care in the local insane asylum, Eleanor would love to open a restaurant where she can follow her passion - cooking.  However, such a job is considered too menial for the likes of the niece of "America's royalty."  Unbeknownst to them, working nearly daily the the Belmont conservatory, is real royalty - Marcus Geoffrey, who is close in line for the throne of Austria.  Though earning a wage as an architect, Marcus' other passion is in botany, particularly plant genetics and grafting, and Belmont has been offered as a haven for his experiments.  Eleanor, plain and tall, does not trust particularly handsome men, and Marcus knows his own good looks all too well, yet somehow they strike up a real friendship.  However, as a potential heir, Marcus has obligations in Austria, limiting his time and freedom.  Will the two find courage to follow their dreams?  And will they find the courage to love?
Cover Art
I am so thankful that the author is not afraid to write a long book.  It is not long for the sake of being long, but long to do justice to the plot, and she certainly does that.  Besides working several plot threads that require time, Alexander develops the characters, the setting, and the historic detail that bring the novel to life, turning the length purely to her advantage.  There is no pointless puttering around, but every passage is working towards the conclusion. 

The author does a marvelous job setting the story in history.  It is not just a romance that takes place after the Civil War - it is a meticulously researched tale firmly anchored in the Reconstruction era with real people and events.  The rise of women's shelters, safe asylums for the insane, troubled relations between Austria and Russia, research with plant genetics and grafting, the search for a potato not prone to rot - all were issues being dealt with at the time.  Not only were Adelicia Acklen, her immediate family, and her servants all real, set in the picturesque Belmont estate, but so also were numerous places described in Nashville, such as the insane asylum.  Additionally, historic figures such as Dorothea Dix (activist for the insane), Gregor Mendel (geneticist), and Luther Burbank (developer of the Russet potato) cameo in the story. 

One of the strongest themes of the story (hinted at by the title) is that of beauty.  Eleanor knows that true beauty is dependent on what is inside a person, not in their outward appearance; however, as a plain woman, she struggles with the fact that, by worldly standards, she isn't beautiful.  There are few women I've known who cannot relate with that feeling of deficiency, no matter their outward appearance.  And the author makes a really good point - something I have noticed myself - that the better you know someone and the more you love them, the more beautiful they become.  And conversely, the uglier a person acts, the less and less attractive they appear, no matter how physically flawless.  In this world where so much weight is placed on physical appearance, it is good to be reminded of what beauty truly is. 

I suspect historical novels such as this - by captivating my interest and prompting me to research further - have led to as much if not more of my knowledge of history than I learned in school.  Like all of Alexander's books, this novel is rich with historic detail, a well-thought-out plot, faith, and encouragement.  5 out of 5 stars!

Thank you Bethany House and NetGalley for a free e-copy for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own. 

Belmont Mansion
1. A Lasting Impression
2. A Beauty So Rare
3. A Note Yet Unsung

Belle Meade Plantation (contains some cross-over characters/connections to Belmont)
1. To Whisper Her Name
2. To Win Her Favor 
2.5 "To Mend a Dream" (part of the novella collection Among the Fair Magnolias)
3. To Wager Her Heart

Carnton Mansion
0.5: "Christmas at Carnton" (novella)

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