In the city of Chicago in 1892, the rules and expectations for Victorian women are strict, their roles in life limited. But sisters Rebecca and Flora Hawes are not typical Victorian ladies. Their love of adventure and their desire to use their God-given talents have taken them out of society ballrooms and delivered them to the Sinai Desert–and into the teeth of a sandstorm.
Accompanied by Soren Petersen, their somber young butler, and Kate Rafferty, a plucky street urchin learning to be their ladies’ maid, the two women are on a quest across the desert chasing rumors of an important biblical manuscript.
This was my second foray into Lynn Austin's writing and I feel like it takes a solid two books to really get a handle on how she writes. Austin's ability to take solid research and weave in fictional adventure stands out in her newest novel following the Hawes sisters as the adventure around the globe seeking how to responsible use their God-given resources and follow his plan.
As seems to be the case with Austin's style this means lots of switching back and forth between time periods in order to flesh out her characters stories. I was relieved and impressed at how smoothly her transitions flowed in this book compared to the last I had read by her. As a result, this story is far more immersive, the plot lines are much clearer, and readers are treated with a much more easily navigated plot. As the time travelling confusion was one of my biggest concerns with my last Austin novel it was good to see the author had refined her skill.
However, she certainly didn't lose any of her ability to produce characters during that refinement. Where We Belong is filled with strong, intriguing characters that eagerly draw you into their hurts and dreams. I loved how successfully Austin uses the sisters diverging skills to develop interest and spur character growth. Both Flora and Becky held their own as primary narrators for their portion of the story and engage readers in different ways. Not to mention how blindsided I was by the final third's focus on Kate and Soren! It takes a good writer to take a fiery maid and a solemn butler and make me ache for their story but the servants backstories had a surprising amount of depth for secondary characters that helped bring the book to it's well traveled conclusion.
Travelling, oh the travel. Austin's characters wrack up a lot of miles and you can tell she's researched the details of their locales. Considering we are in the middle of a nasty cold snap it was wonderful to open up the book and feel like you're peering off at an approaching sandstorm or wandering around Paris. Austin has a knack for bringing her settings to life.
That said, I did have a few complaints that took away from the overall story.
As much as I love the Hawes sisters, at times, in Austin's attempt to convey a deeper spiritual truth the conversation lost its natural flow and began to feel very scripted. I wouldn't say the characters were out of the personalities they had been built with but the material felt very stilted and predictable - particularly in key scenes like on the Nile. For those that like to be immersed in their novels this may be a draw back as it certainly brought me out of the narrative.
The other area I struggled with is the ending. Now, don't get me wrong, I love a happy ending, in fact I find open-ended or depressing ending very dissatisfying. Yet, this conclusion felt both rushed and too perfectly wrapped up given the drama and adventure the characters had faced. The ending was what I look for and yet still sat somewhere left of where it felt it should for reality's sake.
4 out of 5 stars
"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc."