The Debutante

I’m evidently not part of the recognised demographic for contemporary women’s fiction, but I did pick up Kathleen Tessaro’s fourth novel, The Debutante.

What I found was an intriguing novel combining a historical romance with a study of the complexities of modern relationships; the former taking the shape of a mystery prosecuted by the protagonists in the latter. The present-day events take place against a backdrop of a series of letters written by the eponymous deb which both feed off, and into, each other. Wisely, however, the author doesn’t overplay the theme of how the past influences the future, or of how human beings are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. What we are left with is how an understanding of the past helps us understand the scope of some of the current day problems that we face, and to reconcile them, while Tessaro explores well her theme of the importance in our own appreciation of ourselves, and of our worth, of the role played by how we perceive that others see us.

The novel is well structured and the plot device which prompts the mystery is a clever one. Tessaro has done much research into the physical settings and the period detail, including the content of the letters, is accurately observed, the letters particularly being a delight. The resolution of the historical romance is utterly believable (prompted, as the author explains in a Note, by some contemporary events occurring as she was writing the novel) and symptomatic of the social mores of the upper classes; the conclusion of the modern day romance perhaps less so, although only those hard of heart could resist the novel’s closing words.

Letting the novel down, however, are several – really quite essential – things. Firstly, I found it hard to believe that the sisters’ Dublin and familial origins would have allowed them to be so readily accepted into London society of the 1920s and 30s. Secondly, the author’s treatment of the characters in the modern day romance frequently casts them into states of limbo. This is not just a failure of dialogue, which is of inconsistent quality – occasionally sparkling but all too frequently curiously mundane and stilted – but also the outcome of an author who is too heavy-handed with her characters. Thirdly, and most critically, the writing style is also inconsistent, the author sometimes coming up with a tone and phrasing exhibiting warmth and clarity – not least around her theme – but lapsing into stock phrases, unchallenging similes and jarring cliché (the motor car as sexual metaphor being a particularly obvious example), while she is also guilty of inconsequential narration. Some of the mistakes could have been erased with a stronger editing hand – less is more – but this is the author’s fourth book and some of these ought not, by this stage, to be present in her approach.

So, a page-turner as regards the mystery aspects and the theme, but a few regrets over the manner of the journey.

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