Title: The Wet Nurse's Tale
Author: Erica Eisdorfer
# of Pages: 256
This review is based on an advance reader's copy.
Susan Rose isn’t the average protagonist: she’s scheming, promiscuous, plump, and she is also smart, funny, tender, and entirely lovable. Like many lower-class women of Victorian England, she was born into a world that offered very few opportunities for the poor and unlovely. But Susan is the kind of plucky heroine who seeks her fortune, and finds it . . . with some help from, well, her breasts. Susan, you see, is a professional wet nurse; she breast-feeds the children of wealthy women who can’t or won’t nurse their own babies.
But when her own child is sold by her father and sent to a London lady who had recently lost a baby, Susan manages to convince his new foster mother, Mrs. Norbert, to hire her as a wet nurse. Once reunited with her son, Susan discovers the Norbert home to be a much more sinister place than she’d ever expected. Dark and full of secrets, its master is in India, and the first baby who died there did so under very mysterious circumstances. Susan embarks on a terrifying journey to rescue her son before he meets the same fate.
In both fantasy and historical fiction, the two genres in which I feel most at home, I think it's critical for the author to know the world in which she is writing. One of my best friends is disappointed by epic fantasy novels that do not have maps of the world created by the author. I don't blame her- if you create a world and write a story that takes place in it (generally involving a journey of some sort), you should know it well enough to map it. I am much the same way with books that take place in the past, particularly in the 19th century. I know that century pretty well (or, at least, I know it well compared to how well I know other centuries), especially as it pertains to Britain, and so it is integral to my enjoyment of books that take place in the Georgian, Regency or Victorian eras that they are true to their time period.
Erica Eisdorfer nails the Victorian era. She is on top of the class divide, the race divide and the gender divide. Her main character, Susan Rose, speaks in a working-class dialect that is neither stilted nor affected. I value this highly as it is a nuance that many authors cannot master. (See my review on Royal Blood here). Eisdorfer also introduces some characters only for the brief spell of one or two pages, each one sharing his or her reasons for hiring a wet nurse. These people, too, come alive off the page and you get to know their personalities very well, even if you only interact with them for two pages. I really enjoyed these vignettes that Eisdorfer put in at the end of every chapter. They were fun to read and would sometimes be alluded to later in the story as well. In fact, I feel certain that one of the vignettes has a large bearing on the end of the story, only I can't quite put my finger on how the two are connected. I will have to mull over that some more.
Susan, though, steals the show. She is so wonderfully real and easy to identify with. She does not beg for sympathy from anyone, and does not have stupid affectations to get attention. She is strong and kind and (drum roll, please) is the newest member of my Heroines Who Don't Annoy Me list! There has not been a new member to this list since Sal in The Secret River, which I reviewed well over a year ago, so clearly, I have been unimpressed with women in literary offerings for some time. Susan isn't the most fabulous and exciting woman in literature- she doesn't shine like Anne Shirley or intrigue like Helena Justina. But she sets her mind on a goal and goes for it, and one can't help admiring a woman for that.
The only quibble I had with this book was its unexpected plunge into a somewhat Gothic storyline. I did not see that coming at all, from the start, and the book was a bit darker than I expected because of it. But the story is compelling and plausible, and Eisdorfer knows her Victorians. I'd highly recommend the book to any fans of historical fiction!