The beginning backdrop for Sandra Dallas's latest book, THE BRIDE'S HOUSE, is the mining town of Georgetown, Colorado, in 1880. From the ankle-deep mud to the ever-present smoke of the ore fires, Dallas paints a vivid picture and one that stands out for its uniqueness. Her attention to detail extends to the descriptions of her characters --- the roughened, uncouth miners; and the lovelorn, naïve young woman, Nealie, who has run away from a drunken, abusive father to this town only because she had a fondness for the name "George."
Nealie is taken in by Mrs. Travers, a local boardinghouse owner who quickly becomes a mother figure to her; she cares deeply for the girl and extends to her a type of love Nealie has never experienced, one that is filled with kindness, sage advice, and genuine concern for her future. Mrs. Travers feels the best thing for that future is to marry Charlie Dumas, a miner with his own small stake who takes meals at the boardinghouse and has been smitten with Nealie since her arrival in town two months prior. He's a hard worker, a kind man, and as he says to his own credit, "I don't drink or chew." He courts Nealie in earnest, patiently waiting for the day her affections will turn.
Unfortunately for him, Will Spaulding, engineer and educated grandson of the main mine's wealthy owner, shows up for a summer of real work. He also spies Nealie and begins taking meals at Mrs. Travers. His manners are refined, his attention to her flattering, and his gifts and dinners at the Hotel de Paris intoxicating. While he and Nealie can usually be found found hiking together, or in each other's company, she is not hesitant to step out with Charlie when Will can't be found. After all, as Mrs. Travers suggests, a little bit of jealousy won't hurt anybody.
One thing remains constant: regardless of her partner, Nealie's evening strolls never fail to take her past a nearby home under construction. A large Victorian with tall windows, a tower, two parlors and lots of yard, it captures Nealie's fancy immediately. She has naïve fantasies of planting hedges of lilacs and being the bride who opens the door to her husband at the end of his long day. Real life, however, intercedes, and Nealie ends up in a love triangle that comes to an astonishing finale.
The next bride, Pearl, is Nealie's daughter. She lives in her mother's home, amidst her mother's furnishings, with a father who refuses to let her become the independent woman she longs to be. She is smart, but lacks the vivacity and chutzpah of her mother, as Mrs. Travers is oft to remark upon. She dreams of the day that she herself will stand in the parlor at her own wedding. Unfortunately, in her father's eyes, no man is good enough for her; he presumes every potential courter is likely out for her money, and thus he either runs every one of them off or pays them off, guaranteeing that his most precious pearl remains locked in his jewelry box of a house. As expected, this does nothing for their relationship, which sadly deteriorates over time. Relatively late, Pearl does find a love, one who can't be run off by her father any longer. A détente is reached, a baby is born, and the next generation comes into the story.
Susan Curry lives in Chicago, where she enjoys the full life of a privileged teenager. Every summer she accompanies her mother, Pearl, to Georgetown, where they spend the vacation with her aging grandfather and friends she has made over the years. Susan loves Georgetown and has been in love with local boy Joe Bullock since she was a girl, but his feelings for her ebb and flow to her constant dismay. When she states that she will be attending the University of Denver, where he's enrolled, he announces he's transferring to California. Susan goes through with her plans and eventually meets Peter, a young airman headed for the Korean front line, on a streetcar and begins an affair with the somewhat older man. An amusement for her, it is anything but to Peter, an orphan who wants nothing more than to know that there will be someone waiting for him at home. He makes her a marriage proposal, which she dances around, unable to settle in her heart for anyone but Joe Bullock, who naturally turns back up that summer to tug at her heartstrings some more. Peter ships out, Joe's true feelings come out, and Susan, it turns out, is hiding a pretty big secret. The book comes to a very unexpected but quite serendipitous ending that leaves the reader completely satisfied by the last page.
To say much more about the stories of these three women would give away too much. Suffice it to say, there is a strongbox hidden behind the wallpaper in a room of the Bride's House that contains the deepest secrets of these women who came into their marriages. This book is a winning combination of solid historical fiction, vivid enduring characters, and an interesting story that pulls the reader right in. Sandra Dallas is at the top of her game with THE BRIDE'S HOUSE, which will appeal to book clubs, historical fiction fans, and anyone looking for an excellent read.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on May 2, 2011