Rare Objects: A Novel by Kathleen Tessaro. Harper| April 2016| 378 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-235754-0
Set in 1932 Depression-era Boston, this novel wonderfully sets the scene for first generation Irish immigrant Maeve Fanning who recently moved back from New York after some struggles and setbacks. She’s living with her widowed mother, a rather strict Irish Catholic. The young woman straddles between her cloistered upbringing and her true desires. She wants to be independent and not married and pregnant like many of her peers. Here’s a scene in the small apartment: “Next to that, displayed on the dresser shelves, were my mother’s most precious possessions: a photograph of Pope Pius XL, a picture of Charles Stewart Parnell of the Irish Nationalist Party, and in the center of this unlikely partnership, a small wooden crucifix. Below, my framed diploma from the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School took up the entire shelf.”
While in New York, Maeve struggled to find her place and find her identity. She couldn’t find a secretarial position as expected and worked in an unsavory club as a taxi dancer. She felt: “My life was full of cracks, ever-widening gaps between the person I wanted to be and the person I was. When I first came to this city, they used to be small enough to laugh off or ignore. But over the past year they’d grown wider, deeper. I’d fallen in one again last night.” While institutionalized she meets an intriguing, troubled young woman who seems out of place and also remarkably similar in attitude. Both women wanted freedom and the ability to shun convention.
Back in Boston, the fiery redhead dyes her hair blonde, calls herself May and lands an assistant position at an antiques shop that caters to Boston’s wealthy elite. She’s working for a retired anthropology professor and a mysterious English archeologist who travels most of the time but corresponds with the young assistant in enigmatic, clue-filled letters. These moments in the shop working with these two brilliant and strange men fill pages with adventure, treasures and wit. Add to that Maeve’s adventures with the aristocracy and it’s an unforgettable, enchanting read.
While delivering a purchase to a wealthy family, she meets lovely socialite Diana Van der Laar who she recognizes as the same young woman she met in the hospital. Diana takes an interest in Maeve and introduces her to high society as well as some dangerous situations. The two become rather inseparable at parties and events, Maeve blending in among the Boston Brahmin. In the beginning it’s glamorous fun. But soon: “The Diana I knew was a hard-drinking, rebellious prankster who had practically blackmailed me into being her friend. But to the outside world she was an elegant, accomplished society beauty with admirable philanthropic ambitions.” Dark secrets and betrayal extend beyond that idyllic façade. Maeve finds herself caught up in the deceit until she gains confidence to realize what appears perfect may not be the life that she wants. However it’s this symbiotic relationship that she finds difficult to relinquish: “There was sanity in our madness together that I couldn’t find with anyone else. So I ended up walking away. I needed her, apparently more than she needed me. But it was her refusal to even acknowledge me, her complete and utter disregard, that wounded me the most.”
Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. Rare Objects is a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.
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