Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner
Genre: Christian Fiction with historical and contemporary elements
Pages: 305
Publication Date: September 2008
Publisher: Waterbrook Multnomah
Source: I received a free review copy through the WaterBrook Multnomah Blogging for Books Program.
Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book Description (from the publisher):
Leaving a life of privilege to strike out on her own, Lauren Durough breaks with convention and her family’s expectations by choosing a state college over Stanford and earning her own income over accepting her ample monthly allowance. She takes a part-time job from 83-year-old librarian Abigail Boyles, who asks Lauren to transcribe the journal entries of her ancestor Mercy Hayworth, a victim of the Salem witch trials. 
Almost immediately, Lauren finds herself drawn to this girl who lived and died four centuries ago. As the fervor around the witch accusations increases, Mercy becomes trapped in the worldview of the day, unable to fight the overwhelming influence of snap judgments and superstition, and Lauren realizes that the secrets of Mercy’s story extend beyond the pages of her diary, living on in the mysterious, embittered Abigail. 
The strength of her affinity with Mercy forces Lauren to take a startling new look at her own life, including her relationships with Abigail, her college roommate, and a young man named Raul. But on the way to the truth, will Lauren find herself playing the helpless defendant or the misguided judge? Can she break free from her own perceptions and see who she really is?

In February, I reviewed Susan Meissner's Lady in Waiting (click here for the review) and said that I was interested in reading more of her books. So I gladly snapped up The Shape of Mercy when I saw it was available through Waterbrook Multnomah's Blogging for Books program. I'm quite glad I did, because I liked this even more than Lady in Waiting; in fact, this book is going on my keeper shelf.

In The Shape of Mercy, Ms. Meissner uses a similar plot device that I noticed in Lady in Waiting--the story-within-a-story. But I think she does it better in this novel because the two stories are better connected. Lauren Durough, an English major from a rich family, takes a part-time job for Abigail Boyles, who asks her to transcribe the journal of Mercy Hayworth, who lived during the Salem Witch Trials. Mercy comes to life through her journal, and Lauren finds herself questioning aspects of her own life as she watches Mercy's spin out of control.

One of the topics I really find interesting when it is well-novelized is the Salem Witch Trials. I'm not looking for books that sensationalize the event, or infuse supernatural elements into it; what I'm really looking for is a realistic portrayal that feels believable to me. This book meets that desire. Mercy Hayworth and the people around her are fictional characters, but what happened to her was typical of the way that I understand the witchcraft accusations went. People who were different or who had made enemies of any kind were usually the ones who were accused.

I really liked the way that Mercy's story unfolded as Lauren transcribed her journal, and how Mercy's life had such an impact on Lauren. It underlines my own feelings of how the past is relevant to our present and how it can affect us in ways we do not expect. The contemporary part of the story was also complex, as Lauren's conversations with her employer, Abigail, caused her to really re-consider how her upbringing in a wealthy family has affected all of her relationships. Lauren is pushed into a lot of introspection about her bonds with friends, family, and love interests. It wasn't as suspenseful as Mercy's story, but it was thought-provoking nonetheless. And I think the transition between the two stories in this case was more smooth than in Lady in Waiting.

I really enjoyed everything about this book and I am so glad I read it. I highly recommend it to anyone whose interest is piqued by the Salem Witch Trials and who is open to letting historical events inspire your present. 

Related Linkage:
Reading Challenges: 2nds Challenge, Historical Fiction Challenge


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