A Desperate Fortune
by Susanna Kearsley
Can we make ourselves into the people we want to be? Do we become the people we pretend to be?
In A Desperate Fortune, two women centuries apart learn about their true selves, one of whom during a months-long journey as part of an entourage traveling to meet an exiled king.
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Naperville’s Sourcebooks, A Desperate Fortune is the latest novel from Susanna Kearsley, bestselling author of The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. It is an engrossing read that follows the adventure of Mary Dundas, a young woman in 1730s France who finds herself pulled into the dangerous world of the Jacobites, British and Scottish loyalists to King James VIII during his exile in Rome.
Readers meet Mary in the home of her aunt and uncle, who have cared for her since she was a child while her father serves with the king and her older brothers live their own lives. She spends days spinning tales for her cousins, while dreaming that adventure will find her and grieving the loss of her family who don’t appear to want her. While she yearns for adventure, she doesn’t hold out much hope for it.
When her brother, Nicholas, sends for her, she thinks she’s finally being brought “home,” that is, reunited with her family. Instead, however, she learns that she’s being asked to serve as a companion to a man trying to reach the king, along with his Scottish bodyguard and another woman. Mary’s role is to complement the man’s disguises and manufactured backstories by acting as his wife or sister to help him avoid the attention of the English who are hunting for him.
During her travels, Mary keeps an encrypted journal, preserving her story yet hiding it in plain sight. Those travels quickly turn out to be far more dangerous than Mary’s brother would have imagined, and Mary is forced to determine who she trusts, how fast she can think, and what risks she is willing to take.
Mary’s story unfolds along with a parallel narrative, that of Englishwoman Sara Thomas, who is skilled at solving puzzles and cracking codes. Through acquaintances of her cousin, Jacqui, Sara is hired to decipher Mary’s diary while she stays in the home of the diary’s present-day owner in France.
Sara offers a perspective not found often in novels, that of a woman with Asperger’s. In a time when so many people are or know someone on the autism spectrum, it is refreshing to look through Sara’s eyes and feel her emotions, even if she is a fictional character. Sara’s story may dispel some myths along the way, and it reminds us that each person is unique.
Sara believes her challenges because of autism will mean lasting love will elude her. Like Mary, she believes her future will hold only unrealized dreams. Sara is close to her cousin, Jacqui, who has been a lifelong friend and was the first person to truly understand how to help Sara navigate through social situations. Jacqui advises Sara to pretend she’s an alien observing another universe, one who must assimilate to learn.
Centuries before, Mary Dundas uses a form of bravado in order to be liked. Believing people preferred wit over intellect and “vivacity and merriness” above shyness, she forced herself assimilate by flirting, joking, and acting much more confident than she truly felt inside.
By the end of the novel, each woman is learning what she really is, and how she can be the person she wants to be.
Although a work of fiction, the notes at the end of the book explain how Kearsley used memoirs, news publications, and other documents to create realistic details that enrich the story. Some of the characters are indeed based on actual people from the time. The attention to detail certainly adds to a well-crafted adventure that’s well worth the read.
April 2015, Sourcebooks Landmark
$16.99, softcover, 495 pages
—Reviewed by Paige Fumo Fox