Book review: Bethlehem by Karen Kelly
AMBER LOVE 02-MAY-2019 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at Patreon.com/amberunmasked; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I’m also an Amazon Influencer so you can shop through my lists of recommended products.
Karen Kelly has poetic and eloquent writing with consistent period vernacular of the 1920’s and 1960’s in Bethlehem: A Novel from St. Martin’s Press. She masterfully created a single story that spans four generations which particularly highlights Susannah “Sassy” Parrish as a young girl, a young woman, then as a grandmother elder of the Parrish mansion known as Brynmor. Sassy’s story is relatable despite being one of privilege and class during the steel boom era when her father Hep amassed the family wealth with the help of his best friend Charles Collier, Sr. This elder generation of Parrish and Collier kin finds its way into the 1960’s marital troubles between Sassy’s son, Frank and his wife Joanna.
Joanna is the next character in line as a focal point. She’s from a lower middle class background with a blue collar father and mother who was not interested in the rise of feminism. Joanna first believes that the class differences and her lack of adjustment to a lifestyle of maids and chauffeurs will be the biggest source of tension in her marriage. As she develops a surprising friendship with her mother-in-law, she realizes money is not the source of her trouble. Temptation to be unfaithful is the same regardless of how rich one is. Having your child dropped off at school in a Rolls Royce is no substitute for his father never being home.
Karen Kelly makes Joanna and Sassy equally as sympathetic characters. Their unlikely friendship is a mirror to one prior, that of Sassy’s mother Helen “Hedy” and Dorothy “Doe”. Doe and her family are the local cemetery keepers who sell and dig the plots and tend to the grounds. The rich history of their friendship unfolds in glorious and shocking twists along with Sassy and Jo’s relationship.
One thing that Karen Kelly makes perfectly clear as the family secrets are revealed is that romance and love are not sure things and cannot be forced. Lovers being separated by distance and obligations leaves someone left behind no matter what year it is.
Joanna wiped the sleeve of her nightgown brusquely across her eyes, further frustrated by her tears. They were born not only of the feeling that she was losing her identity and control of her life, but also — and even more acute — of the threat to a sacred expectation: if there was going to be a power struggle in the household, she needed to know that her husband would stand behind her.
Kelly paints an elaborate picture of each scene. The decadence of the background at Brynmor mansion is especially brought to life in the chapter about Sassy’s debutante ball. Rather than going for the bouffant chiffon and frills like her older sister India, Sassy makes her party a full flapper jazz extravaganza like the people have never seen before.
Though readers get know all the male characters too, they pale in comparison to the strong, flawed, loving women around them. I found myself reading the final chapter and the epilogue several times trying to sort out how Sassy’s husband Wyatt died. The how is not as important as what he was trying to communicate as death came calling. His love for Sassy was more solid than the his family’s steel.
Doe was teary again, her voice thick. “It’s true what they say, you know. The smallest coffins are the heaviest.”
Readers are introduced quickly to Doe and her grandson Daniel at the cemetery. One of the plots that is of particular interest to Joanna and her children is a small headstone marked as Baby Hayes. Death of a child and miscarriage are subjects addressed throughout Joanna’s investigation into who Baby Hayes was.