Book Title and Author: The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain
Publication Date and Publisher: October 3, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 384 pages
Buy on Amazon.com
Date Read: September 14, 2017 (ARC-NetGalley)
In 1944, twenty-three-year-old Tess DeMello abruptly ends her engagement to the love of her life when she marries a mysterious stranger and moves to Hickory, North Carolina, a small town struggling with racial tension and the hardships imposed by World War II. Tess’s new husband, Henry Kraft, is a secretive man who often stays out all night, hides money from his new wife, and shows no interest in making love. Tess quickly realizes she’s trapped in a strange and loveless marriage with no way out.
The people of Hickory love and respect Henry and see Tess as an outsider, treating her with suspicion and disdain, especially after one of the town’s prominent citizens dies in a terrible accident and Tess is blamed. Tess suspects people are talking about her, plotting behind her back, and following her as she walks around town. What does everyone know about Henry that she does not? Feeling alone and adrift, Tess turns to the one person who seems to understand her, a local medium who gives her hope but seems to know more than he’s letting on.
When a sudden polio epidemic strikes the town, the townspeople band together to build a polio hospital. Tess, who has a nursing degree, bucks Henry’s wishes and begins to work at the hospital, finding meaning in nursing the young victims. Yet at home, Henry’s actions grow more alarming by the day. As Tess works to save the lives of her patients, can she untangle her husband’s mysterious behavior and save her own life?
Diane Chamberlain has written a compelling novel with her usual beautiful writing style and entrancing, immersive narratives, as well as a carefully crafted plot and strong, well-developed characters. Also, being the history junkie that I am, I really appreciated the meticulous research Chamberlain did while writing the true events that take place in the book. While it is dated during WWII, the actual events of the novel aren’t focused on the war. Instead, that era plays a huge part in the social and cultural events in the book—interracial relations, Jim Crow laws in North Carolina, women’s rights, class differences, the polio epidemic, and the polio hospital built in just 54 hours in Hickory, NC.
The Stolen Marriage is such a captivating story of love, marriage, secrets, betrayal, grief, tragedy, racism, class, forgiveness, and redemption that you will not want to put it down! I not only felt completely transported to another place and time while reading the book but felt as if I were fully involved with the character’s lives since Chamberlain did such an excellent job making them feel so vibrant and life-like! This was such a fantastic book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough!
It is the summer of 1943 in Little Italy, Baltimore when readers first meet Tess Demello and her fiancé Vincent Russo. Tess is a strong, vibrant young woman who is madly in love with Vince and has her entire future planned around not only their lives together as husband and wife but her ambition of being a nurse since she only needs to take the RN licensing exam to fulfill her dream. Vince is a doctor who has just finished his residency at Johns Hopkins, and he plans to open his own pediatrics’ office with Tess working by his side. It seems like they have the perfect love story and the perfect life mapped out until things completely unravel.
Shocking her family and Vince, Tess ends their engagement after Vince has been in Chicago for months volunteering during the polio outbreak. During his time away, she grows insecure, nervous, and aggravated at their lack of contact and even questions if Vince really wants to marry her. Instead, while on an impromptu girl’s weekend to Washington D.C., she meets another man, wealthy Henry Kraft, owner of Kraft Furniture in Hickory, N.C. Tess suddenly becomes Mrs. Henry Kraft.
When Tess and Hank are married, his mother, Ruth, and sister, Lucy, are horrified that Hank has married “beneath” him or married at all since he was expected to marry another woman—is this the “stolen marriage” then? Has Tess stolen Hank from another woman and if so, why did he not tell her? Plus, they not only believe Tess to be unsuitable since she is Catholic, Italian, and working class but along with the rest of the town, they’re suspicious of Tess’s motives in marrying Hank and act like she’s a gold digger. Everyone she meets treats her with utter contempt except for the hired help and a medium who becomes her friend. It’s horrible to see wonderful, kind Tess treated so awfully, especially knowing that it was in part because of her ethnicity and religion that she was treated so horribly. Chamberlain really does make you look at racism and prejudice and question how far we’ve really come in 70 years…it really isn’t that far when you watch the news and see what is going on every single day.
The biggest shock is Tess’s marriage. Tess quickly discovers her marriage is a sham and although Hank is kind to her, he has no desire to touch her, is very distant, keeps secrets, and rarely comes home at night. I certainly had my own ideas about what Hank’s secrets were, why he wouldn’t touch his wife, and where he was at night, and wow, was I wrong!! When all the reasons were revealed, I was shocked! It was a wonderful plot twist in a story already full of interesting twists and turns!
Still, Tess is left in misery and abject loneliness wondering about the horrible mistake that she made coming to Hickory, especially after one tragedy after another happens and she is blamed. Where she was held in contempt by the townspeople before, she is now openly despised by many. It was very difficult seeing the high-spirited, strong compassionate Tess from the beginning of the book so lost and lonely. You know she is a fighter, but you feel that spark go out of her for a while, and Chamberlain is so good at making you feel the character’s emotions that I sobbed with Tess when she faced each tragedy.
What I loved and admired is that even though Tess is faced with adversity, that she never lets go of her pride and determination or forgets her passionate calling to be a nurse despite Hank and his mother’s objections. When the polio outbreak happens and the community comes together to build the hospital in town to save lives, Tess faces down Hank’s objections to be a nurse at the hospital with an iron will. While doing what she is most passionate about, Tess rediscovers herself, saves lives, finds friendship, and most of all discovers peace and forgiveness.
The Stolen Marriage ends on the notes of much-deserved happiness, redemption, and love finally gotten right. Chamberlain has written a wonderful novel that even though it has its imperfections, including some predictable parts of the plot, they are few and in between. Of all her books that I’ve read, I believe this is the most beautiful one. It’s raw in places. Real. Stunning with its presentation of grief and genuine emotions. I loved that there was an epilogue that tells where the characters are 10 years in the future since I didn’t want the book to end! I can’t wait to read Chamberlain’s next book since I know it will be simply superb!
**Thank you, NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Diane Chamberlain for providing me with an ARC copy in exchange for my fair and honest review.**