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The Rebel Wife by Taylor M. Polites
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Jan 05, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: historical-fiction, united-states, southern-fiction, amazon-vine-reviews, 2-stars
Read in January, 2012

This book starts out well enough: it’s reasonably well-written and has good descriptions and a vivid depiction of life in Reconstruction-era Alabama. Nevertheless, I wound up quite disliking it; this seems like a novel that would appeal to a certain subset of historical fiction readers, but not to everyone.

In a small Alabama town in 1876, Augusta Branson’s husband dies a mysterious, bloody death in their bedroom. Augusta quickly realizes that everyone around her has their own agenda, that she doesn’t know who she can trust, that a large amount of her husband’s money has apparently gone missing and that she’s going to need that money.

While the novel starts off pretty well, it soon loses steam. Which, for me, it never really regained. The plot was much more straightforward than I expected (although, in all fairness, at 282 pages it’s a very short book). It’s also definitely horror-influenced; the first 100 pages or so is all about building atmosphere, with everybody hiding things for one reason or another (in some cases, for no reason I could deduce except that it added to the suspense). Full disclosure: I don’t like horror, and in picking out this book was more focused on its marketing as a sort of anti-Gone With the Wind than in the oft-used descriptor “gothic.” Well, it’s quite gothic (read: creepy), but it isn't really a 21st century “answer” to GWTW, except insofar as there are former slaves in the book who aren’t infantilized and a burgeoning KKK that isn’t praised. Which I would hope to be true of all modern fiction dealing with that era. The scope, style, subject matter, even the genre, are otherwise too different to allow for much comparison even if this book was that good, which it is not. (For all its racism, GWTW is an excellent novel in many, many ways--and I find it kind of amusing that even in lauding this book as different, the marketers want to grab onto its coattails.)

Although, to the book’s credit, it does handle the setting well. There is a good look at how society changed (and stayed the same) after the Civil War, and you get a sense of the culture beyond the demands of the plot. There’s a look at the politics of the time without getting too bogged down, and at how emancipation didn’t really mean freedom for a lot of people who stayed in the same place where they’d been slaves.

But then there are the characters. Augusta’s decently well-developed, and manages to be convincingly a 19th-century southern white woman while still being mostly sympathetic by modern standards. But the rest of the cast feels rather flat, probably because of the dialogue, which is.... flat. I could not hear the characters’ individual voices or speech patterns in their words--and this is a book with a lot of talking, where much of the character development depends on it. They did not come alive.

I debated between 2 and 3 stars (for the right reader, this may be a very good book), but am going down to 2 because I personally did not enjoy it.
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Heather You have captured my thoughts perfectly! Excellent review.


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