Lynn Austin's novel A Proper Pursuit Violet Hayes convinces her father to let her go to Chicago to stay with her grandmother and see the world's fair, though secretly it's to find her mother, who left when Violet was eight. However, her grandmother and her three sisters each have a different agenda for her while she's there, and none are particularly willing to spill the truth about her mother. As she finds herself with numerous suitors and numerous roads to take, Violet must decide for herself what the best choice is for her life.
While not as whimsical as Austin's more recent Wonderland Creek, A Proper Pursuit shares similar humor - a daydreamy, imaginative humor that particularly tickles my fancy. Violet definitely has her head in the clouds, imagining all sorts of more exciting events than reality generally gives her. I love the relaxed feel of the story and its indulgent length (432 pages).
The supporting characters--Violet's aunts and grandmother and suitors--make for a wonderful cast of characters. The four sisters are so different from each other, with such unique perspectives and agendas, and each has something to teach Violet, even if they appear frivolous or ridiculous at first. None of the four are perfect, but they each have something to love about them. The same goes for her four suitors; they are each very different, and they give Violet ample opportunity to figure out what she most wants in a husband, or if she even wants a husband at all. They all form a part of helping her grow up into herself.
While Violet does not go to Chicago in pursuit of a husband, men certainly are pursuing her. After the first third of the book, there were four men seriously interested in her, and at that point I honestly wasn't sure who she'd fall in love with--not a common situation in most romances! (And a refreshing situation I enjoyed). As it is a christian book, one might assume the seminary student, but as a romance, it could point to the wealthy man who is tired of pretending. But in a turn of events, the boring man from home could prove to have surprising depth, or the traveling salesman be a solid, reliable person in spite of appearances. As time goes on it becomes more obvious, but I liked that all four are given an equal chance of being the one.
Violet is refreshingly honest, especially when it comes to serving. She admits that she doesn't like serving in the tenements and slums with her grandmother, not because she has no compassion (and she does, indeed, have great compassion for the poor), but because frankly, the sights and smells of the slums make her sick, and she is not sure she could handle a life devoted to serving there. Her rich aunt's form of serving--helping financially by raising money through charity events--is something that is far more appealing for her and well within her scope of abilities. I really appreciate that the book points out that it's okay to feel that way. Both ends of the spectrum are legitimate areas for serving God, and we need both (and everything in between) to reach out for God's kingdom. Not everyone is a hand in the body of Christ, and not everyone should be.
I loved Wonderland Creek so much that I wasn't sure anything else by the author could compare, but I ended up delighted by this book too. It was fun to tour the Chicago World's Fair through Violet's eyes and meet some famous people of the time, from evangelists to suffragettes to reformists. I found the different forms of Christianity in the novel to be realistically expressed: from just-go-to-church-on-Sundays indifference to strict, loveless obedience; from all-consuming, passionate ministry to simply loving like Jesus. The mystery with her mother made me cry near the end, when more is revealed. Full of both humor and heart, it is a highly satisfying novel with enough whimsy to tickle my fancy but enough depth to tug at my heart. It well deserves its 2008 Christy Award for Best Historical. 5 out of 5 stars!