THE VESPERTINE (The Vespertine #1)
Paranormal Young Adult
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Available March 7th
Received for review via NetGalley
Amelia is finally getting to leave her small town in Maine and spend time in Baltimore circa 1889, where she and her cousin Zora are to spend the summer finding themselves worthy husbands. Before their search can begin in earnest however, Amelia begins to have strange visions that come only at sunset, hazy premonitions of future events she quickly realizes always come to fruition.
When word of Amelia's ability gets out, she and Zora are asked to visit household after household to share her gift with an awed public. While reveling in her newfound popularity, Amelia also finds herself distracted from her husband hunting by Nathaniel, an impoverished artist considered not suitable for marriage by mainstream society. Despite his poor standing, Amelia is instantly and powerfully drawn to him, risking her reputation to meet with him whenever possible.
While busy exploring a relationship with Nathaniel, Amelia's visions begin to intensify, progressing from simple and mundane predictions to those showing violence and death, and when one of her and Zora's closest friends is gravely injured just as Amelia foretold, her joyous summer in Baltimore comes to a screeching halt, replaced instead with bedlam and dark accusations.
A beautifully haunting tale, The Vespertine transports us to a world that seems so strange and unfamiliar but yet is one we know existed, where stringent social etiquette entirely dictates the behavior of young ladies and the threat of ruination weighs heavily on every family with a daughter of courting age. Ms. Mitchell paints a vivid picture, her stunning prose like effortless brush strokes across a blank canvas, mesmerizing us as a cascade of emotions spills from the pages and coats us in the breathtaking quality of her written words. This story both fascinates and excites, highlighting customs and social procedures that make us marvel at how different life was in Amelia's time, reading wide-eyed and sometimes slack-jawed as she navigates a world where appearances and reputation must be upheld at all costs in order to find a suitable husband. A smile always decorates our faces, however, as she attempts to adhere to what is good and proper, but also quietly rebels–daring to defy propriety and seek out a life of her choosing.
Both Amelia and Zora are young ladies with whom we instantly connect, their playful teasing and private flouting of the societal rules constricting their every movement–ones rendering them nothing but decorative property to be handed from a father or brother's care to a husband's–keeping us highly entertained and more than a touch amused at their hushed antics. Their relationship is one of true friendship, not burdened with petty jealousies but rather defined by a mutual understanding and desire to find affection. Zora doesn't mock Amelia for her unusual gift, and though she basks in the popularity thrust upon them when Amelia's ability is made public, she doesn't seek to exploit the visions for her own gain, instead shying away from knowledge of her own future entirely and treating Amelia with same easy caring as she did before the paranormal entered their lives. Both girls approach their circumstances with an infectious humor and charm, warming our hearts even as the seriousness of Amelia's predictions escalates in scale and begins to cloud their clear-cut paths to society-approved bliss with danger and darkness.
Nathaniel is an interesting compliment to Amelia's character, possessing a hypnotic mysterious quality significantly enhanced by the story's shift between past and present events. Because the story begins after climactic developments have taken place then flashes back several months to recount them from the beginning, the nature of Amelia's predicament at the onset of this tale forces us to keep our guard up in Nathaniel's presence, constantly wondering what actions he will take to bring us full circle. We also question whether the information we've been provided is misleading since it's presented out of context initially, resulting in an unshakable sense of unease as a clear understanding of his feelings and motivations hovers intangibly between past history and current reality. Though some may be be bothered by the lack of a strict linear progression, the way it's presented adds complexity, forcing us to question what we think we know about both Nathaniel and Amelia, their individual paranormal abilities, and their emotional connection as we struggle to piece together the events spanning just a few short months with the extraordinary repercussions reaped in so short a time.
One drawback to The Vespertine is a lack of explanation for the emergence of Amelia's gift and the existence of Nathaniel's, and while it's easy to get swept away in the story and forget we don't have that information, curiosity does get the better of us eventually and we are left with no answers to quench our thirst for knowledge. Even a shallow illumination regarding the sudden appearance of Amelia's visions would have been appreciated so we might have a better understanding of Amelia herself and how she seems so well equipped to handle something so foreign and unexplainable. Though such questions do rattle around in our heads from time to time, the flowing quality of the writing smooths the small wrinkles caused by the paranormal element, surrounding us in the lyrical loveliness of Ms. Mitchell's words and the dynamic characters who come to life before our eyes.