Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: Jessamine by Eugenia O'Neal

Rating: 3.5/ Stars 
Pages: 312 (eBook)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series/Standalone: Standalone
Publication Date: June 2012
Source: Received a copy from the author in exchange for honest review.

Synopsis (GoodReads):
Jessamine tells the story of Grace Hylton, an African-American, who arrives on the Caribbean island of St. Crescens full of doubts about her husband’s political aspirations, doubts about her marriage and doubts about the wisdom of relocating. Her native-born husband, Julian, has lived most of his adult life in the States but has come back to St. Crescens, determined to pull his country out of the cauldron of corruption, nepotism and crime into which the leading political dynasty has taken it.

An architect by training, Julian buys and restores Jessamine, an old Great House. What the Hyltons don’t know is that Jessamine is home to the ghost of Arabella Adams who lived there as a governess during the late 1800s.

Jessamine is told from the alternating viewpoints of the two women – both foreigners, both married to local men. An old injustice binds them across the century that separates them, but can Grace discover its roots before St. Crescens is plunged into violence and chaos?

     When I first read the synopsis of Jessamine, I was expecting something different.  The synopsis combined with the cover, made me instantly think ghost story, scary ghost.  Jessamine is a ghost story, just not the scary ghost story that I was expecting.  In fact, the first couple of chapters gave me a feeling of that doom was lurking around the corner.  That Arabella was just waiting around the for Grace's arrival to wreck havoc in her life and marriage.  Arabella did cause some problems in Grace's life but she was more of the friendly ghost that needed help rather than the angry ghost who wanted to run the American woman out of her house and off the island.

     Jessamine, is the story of two women that leave their homeland for a small island in the Caribbean, that is set in its ways and difficult for outsiders to penetrate.  There is Arabella,  an English woman in search of a job and trying to carve a future for herself, in the 1800s.  Then there is Grace, a modern African-American woman who arrives in St. Crescens after leaving her job and family to help her husband pursue his dreams.  The story of each of these women is tied not only to the Great House but also to the past and future of St. Crescens.

     Normally, I wouldn't talk about location, but I thought it was important to point out the St. Crescens is a fictional island.  I point that out because 1) I suck at geography and 2) O'Neal's description of the island and its history made me want to visit.  I actually looked St. Crescens up on the map.  Then I tweeted the author to let her know that St. Crescens would be an island that I would like to visit for the history alone.
     While reading the details of both Arabella and Grace exploring the islands, I could picture it all.  And I wanted to see those same buildings and streets for myself.  I even wanted to take a walk up to the old house and see the fountain and the mango tree.  I wanted to go to the church where Grace looked up birth and marriage records.  I wanted to see the mural painted inside, depicting St. Crescens history.  I am very disappointed that this will never happen.
     Out of the two main female characters, Arabella and Grace, I felt that Arabella was the strongest of the two.  Arabella's story was more well-rounded.  This could be because she was dead and readers were learning about her history and the events that lead to her death.  Or it could have been that she was more interested in learning and explore St. Crescens and it's culture.

     Grace on the other hand seemed to just be there.  It really wasn't her choice to live in St. Crescens, her husband kind of decided that when he wanted to return home to run for public office.  Grace's interaction with the people of island was limited and it affected the way that I felt about her as a character.  I don't feel that I got to know her as well as I did Arabella.  Sometimes, it seemed that Grace was just a vehicle to tell Arabella's story.

    Both Grace and Arabella's love interest were solid characters set in their ways and sure of the direction that they wanted to take in their lives.  They had the same personality and some of the same background.  I don't want to give too much away, but I did like that both of these men were strong male characters.  Both of them had a deep respect for their partners and wanted the best for them.

   One character that I would like to have seen a little more of is Julian's grandmother.  I had the feeling that she was a woman with her own rich story to tell.  But in keeping with customs of the island, she was very tight-lipped about her past.  She did not even tell her grandson Julian their family history and she raised him.  I don't recall learning what happen to Julian's parents and how he ended up being raised by his grandmother.

     My first warning to potential readers is that Jessamine is not written in American Standard English.   Eugenia O'Neal is from British Virgin Islands and some of the spelling and word choice reflects that, this doesn't bother me at all since most of the spelling is close enough. But sometimes there were words that just baffled me (just a few examples there are more):

  • Gawp: which is similar to gawk 
  • Huzzif: which my Google research as indicated is a like "sewing kit".  I couldn't find this word in the dictionary.
Having to look up some of the words was a learning experience and it made me realize how fascinating language is.

     I already mention how much I loved the imagery and what O'Neal was able to do with the island.  But she also did an excellent job of the local dialect.  She was able to portray the local speech patterns and word choices without confusing the reader.  I found myself highlighting many of the colorful sayings and even twitted O'Neal on the few that I wasn't sure about.  A couple of my favorite:
  • "Now you favor a cat what done swallowed a night lizard."
  • "A baby whose mother cries with him in her womb will be born with a head deformed by sorrow.
     The only major problem that I had with Jessamine was the ending.  I felt that it was kind of rushed, once the main story conflict between Grace and Arabella was over it seemed like a race to the end.  I wanted to see how things played out between Grace and Julian better.  There was a lot of stuff that happened at the end but it was glossed over, which was disappointing.

Explanation of Rating:
     It took me a while to decided whether to give Jessamine a 3.5 Star rating or a 4 Star rating.  I ultimately decided on a 3.5 Star rating for two reasons:
  1.  Grace - Compared to Arabella her character was on the weak side.  A more well rounded Grace would have made for a better read.  
  2. The Ending - It felt a little rush.  The crucial scene where the outcome of Julian's election race and the consequence happens fast and there are very few details.  Which made it feel rushed.
Overall Recommendation:

     I would recommend Jessamine without hesitation.  It hits most of my literary sweet spots: strong female characters, historical content, excellent writing, and foreign locations.  In fact, I am looking forward to reading more from Eugenia O'Neal.

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