Thursday, May 29, 2014

Moral Dilemmas in "The Secret Life of Violet Grant"

What do you get if you mix romance with history and politics and throw in a little spy thriller?  You get The Secret Life of Violet Grant by my New York Times bestselling daughter Beatriz Williams.  Now available in bookstores everywhere.

What can I say about it except go and order yours?  And what more can I say without ruining your whole experience with plot spoilers?

Let's start with this.  Manhattan girl-about-town Vivian Schuyler -- the same Schuylers that my man Alexander Hamilton married into centuries ago -- gets a suitcase in the mail in 1964.  It seems to have belonged to her great-aunt Violet that disappeared mysteriously right before World War I.  What gives?  
Well, Vivian is a spunky kid, even if she is rich, and even if she only got her job as fact-checker at Metropolitan magazine because she's the best friend of the owner's daughter.  In fact Vivian might remind you of the spunky heroines of those now-forgotten 1930s screwball comedies. So she ignores the warnings from Mums and Dadums about the danger of family scandal and bores right in to the suitcase mystery to figure out just what happened back in 1914.  That sets up a glorious romp through Manhattan with lots of drinking and smoking on the one hand and the gradual unraveling of the life of the mystery of the great-aunt Violet who left New York in 1912 as a young science graduate to join the masters of the universe trying to figure out the nature of the atom in Britain and Germany.

In between the dizzying plot twists we get a lot of moral dilemmas.  What do you do if you find that you and your best friend are in love with the same man?  What do you do when your lover wants you to have an abortion?  What do you do if an educated girl comes to you wanting an abortion?  What do you do if you think that a young woman in the office is being improperly treated?

Sorry, liberals.  These questions are considered not as black and white political issues of rights and "Justice!" but as moral dilemmas that challenge good people in their daily lives, that don't have easy answers, and that ought to be worked out without the clunking fist of government.

The biggest issue, that comes up again and again, is who can you trust?  When someone says they love you, do they really love you or are they trying to use you?  And what are you prepared to sacrifice for love? I think I can say, without betraying the story, that in Violet Grant these questions remains open right down to the last page.

Violet Grant is my daughter's third novel with Putnam and, if you ask me, she is getting better with every book.  Beatriz Williams is willing to take risks, and the more she writes, the bigger the risks.

The central question is, if you are writing a novel that mixes romance, history, politics, and a bit of spy thriller, how far can you go?  How much is enough?  What will the punters like?  The only thing to do is to put pen to paper and find out.  And that's what Beatriz Williams has done.  And what she has done is deliver a glorious romp that, if you pay attention, is really about the Big Things: love, courage, honor, decency, and sacrifice.  And their opposites.

What else is there?

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