This book caught my attention during my most recent visit to the bookstore. I’ve seen the author’s books stocked before but hadn’t paid them much attention before now – there is, after all, always far too many titles to browse to actually take in all of them. The idea behind it – a poor Victorian girl having given birth and lost the baby – caught my interest and I decided to give it a shot.
Title: Fallen Grace
Author: Mary Hoffman
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Target Audience: Teen / YA
Story: Grace Parkes has just had to do a terrible thing. Having given birth to an illegitimate child, she has travelled to the famed Brookwood Cemetery to place her small infant's body in a rich lady's coffin. Following the advice of a kindly midwife, this is the only way that Grace can think of to give something at least to the little baby who died at birth, and to avoid the ignominy of a pauper's grave. Distraught and weeping, Grace meets two people at the cemetery: Mrs Emmeline Unwin and Mr James Solent. These two characters will have a profound affect upon Grace's life. But Grace doesn't know that yet. For now, she has to suppress her grief and get on with the business of living: scraping together enough pennies selling watercress for rent and food; looking after her older sister, who is incapable of caring for herself; thwarting the manipulative and conscience-free Unwin family, who are as capable of running a lucrative funeral business as they are of defrauding a young woman of her fortune. A stunning evocation of life in Victorian London, with vivid and accurate depictions, ranging from the deprivation that the truly poor suffered to the unthinking luxuries enjoyed by the rich: all bound up with a pacy and thrilling plot, as Grace races to unravel the fraud about to be perpetrated against her and her sister.
Thoughts and impressions: Though this was shelved in the A section, I think it would have been better in the younger readers’ area. It’s true that the book deals with themes of rape, childbirth, death and the evil that swarmed the Victorian London streets, but I don’t feel that any part of it would have been inappropriate for 12+ readers if parents are willing to sit with them and answer any questions they have. In fact, had I read the book when I was 12-16 I think that I would have appreciated it a lot more than I did now.
The author goes to considerable lengths to bring the lives of the poor – and how hardened they are towards anyone that they can swindle, even their fellow poor – to life for the reader in a simple but powerful way and she does a very good job of it. The presentation of the “death trade” is also very intricate and obviously well-researched. I did learn a few new things about death in the Victorian period that I hadn’t been fully aware of.
The story itself follows two sisters – Grace and Lily – and the money-grubbing family who want to claim the sisters’ inherited fortune for themselves. Of course, Grace and Lily are unaware that they stand to gain a fortune if they can prove themselves to be their father’s daughters as they are too poor to be able to afford copies of the newspapers where advertisements asking for news of their whereabouts are placed. For a long time they’ve been living the life of the poor, trying to scrounge a living from what they have at their disposal but coming ever-closer to having to go to one of the workhouses.
Grace, the younger of the two, has to look after her older sister as Lily is on the simple side. She means well with her actions but her mental state makes her an easy target for anyone who does not have her best interests at heart and she often makes their situation worse rather than better. I enjoyed observing Grace’s interactions with her sister and how she’d get Lily to admit to the truth in degrees whenever she lied, but also how fiercely protective of her she was. There was a very pure and dynamic sisterly bond between the two of them that made them something special to read about.
The Unwins were the archetypical villains and were a tad too much on the stereotypical side for me to really buy their characters. Of course, there are people out there motivated by greed just as much as these characters are. I think I wanted more layering to their characters rather than greed being their sole motivator for every single action.
As for James, I would have liked to have been given the chance to get to know him better. He had the potential to be an interesting character that could have opened the doors to another side of Victorian life but in the end he wasn’t really developed enough.
I would consider this a very good historical read for younger teen readers but it didn’t really have the power to completely captivate me as an adult reader.
Style: On the simpler side, which is part of why I feel this book would appeal to younger readers more.
Final verdict: A very good tale, but a tad too black and white for me as an adult reader. 3.5 stars.
Extra notes: I don’t think there was any bad language present. No sex.