a desperate fortune book coverReviewed by Rachel Mann

Susanna Kearsley’s A Desperate Fortune is almost two books in one. It has two intertwining narratives, which connect through a journal written in code during the 1730s by one protagonist, Mary, and deciphered in the present by another protagonist, Sara. One helpful way of keeping all this straight is through point of view: Kearsley intersperses Sara’s first-person narrative and readings of Mary’s journal entries with third-person accounts of Mary’s situation.

Sara, who has Asberger’s, gets to read the journal due to a combination of connections and cryptography skills: an acquaintance of her cousin’s hires her to decode it. While working on the journal, Sara moves in with its owner, Claudine; Claudine’s housekeeper Denise; and Denise’s son Noah. Conveniently for Sara, and for readers interested in romance, their neighbor happens to be Denise’s handsome ex, Luc.

What happens in the journal? In it, Mary chronicles how she ends up working with Scottish spies, Mr. MacPherson and Madame Roy, to protect an Englishman in France. The half-French, half-English Mary, who resourcefully and naturally fits in with the spies’ dangerous covert operations, develops sympathy for the Scots, especially the equally dangerous MacPherson.

Mary and Sara have several similarities, ranging from the obvious to the less so. Besides their shared ability to code and somewhat shared setting (they’re both in France, just at different times), both women speak French and English, are adaptable and adventurous, and are relatively alone. They’re also both storytellers (Sara becomes one primarily by exploring and sharing Mary’s journal, while Mary tells fairy tales).

It’s cool to see what Mary distils from her life into her journal; A Desperate Fortune contains both what happens to Mary and how Mary records it. The book also fills in the gaps that Sara imagines. As a reader outside the narratives, I liked getting to observe one character reading a second’s writing, while also gaining access to the additional information about the second character that the first character desires. This process has another layer of gratification in A Desperate Fortune, since the first reader, Sara, interprets what she reads very accurately. For instance, she guesses the breed of Mary’s charming dog, Frisque, who is central to what I thought were two of the book’s most suspenseful moments.

I loved the earlier books of Kearsley’s I’ve read, like The Rose Garden, and had high expectations for A Desperate Fortune. I enjoyed the latter, although not quite as much as the former, which is one of my favorite novels. Ultimately, I felt more invested in Sara’s discoveries about Mary’s life than in Mary herself—perhaps because of the modern setting or Sara’s first-person narration, which was one of the things I liked most about this book.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Sourcebooks Landmark. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.