Skip to main content

The Talented Miss Farwell


The Talented Miss Farwell

Combining the sharp ingenuity of Sherlock Holmes and the bad-girl attitude of a classic literary femme fatale, THE TALENTED MISS FARWELL by Emily Gray Tedrowe is a fast-paced and compulsively readable novel, a magnetic character study about one unforgettable woman.

The year is 1979, and 14-year-old Becky Farwell is already years ahead of her peers and neighbors. She takes advanced math courses, writes essays for her classmates in exchange for money and cosmetics, and is the brains behind her father’s small business. Although she is young and still has a lot to learn, it is clear that she is someone to root for.

Jumping ahead year by year, Tedrowe tracks Becky and her father as they grow their business, bump elbows with the town elite, and manage to do a complete 180 on their luck and finances. But Becky yearns for more. Already working in the town hall as a bookkeeper at 17, she is known for her ability to catch mistakes, find money where there once was none, and keep her superiors on their toes. Her can-do attitude soon finds her rising in the ranks, but she is still constrained by the time: her male colleagues don’t want a woman correcting them any more than they want their careless spending on client dinners and group outings recorded by the powers that be. So Becky learns to keep her head down and her findings quiet. So quiet, in fact, that no one notices when she begins diverting extra funds into her own wallet.

"THE TALENTED MISS FARWELL is an absolute hoot. Becky Farwell is the protagonist readers dream of: charming, brilliant and just bad enough to be completely electrifying."

Although Becky comes from humble beginnings, she knows all about style and nobility, and has a definite taste for the finer things in life: the perfect lipstick, the right pair of jeans and even fine art. Beginning with the purchase of one meagerly priced $540 painting, she finds herself obsessed with the chase of art --- knowing the artist, the medium and the dealer --- and her ability to make a quick buck by buying high-priced pieces and reselling them. While her hobby is (secretly) sponsored by the town of Pierson, Illinois, she always puts back what she takes using her profits. Until she doesn’t.

After connecting with Mac, an art collector in Chicago, Becky starts living an expensive double life. At first, she just joins in on Mac’s parties and shopping sprees, but as she begins to learn the scene and form bonds with the big players, she racks up her own impressive collection. And once you have a collection, you need a place to display it. Splitting time between her father’s rundown home in Pierson and a swanky apartment in Chicago, Becky becomes a real-life con artist, spending hours in Pierson’s town hall basement to find places where accounts were incorrectly tallied, checks were forgotten and the good people of Pierson were simply too trusting. But as she racks up greater and greater debts, Pierson finds a new mayor and her “activity” comes dangerously close to being revealed. Is it too late for Becky to repay the town that has shepherded and loved her, or has she become too cutthroat and intoxicated by her newfound power?

THE TALENTED MISS FARWELL is an absolute hoot. Becky Farwell is the protagonist readers dream of: charming, brilliant and just bad enough to be completely electrifying. We know from the first page that she is naturally intelligent, yet what I loved most about her journey was how clearly Tedrowe laid out her process with every reinvention. When Becky first tries her hand at the art scene, she makes a humiliating snafu. But rather than sending her home packing, it is this mistake (and Mac’s help) that turns her into an absolute scholar, of both the art world and the capitalistic dark side. Her devotion to her craft is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying --- you’ll be tempted to check your own wallet as you read to make sure that she hasn't charmed you out of house and home. Deliciously wicked, yet a perfect example of someone you want to root for, Tedrowe’s heroine is jaw-droppingly shameless and exultant.

Her main character alone is more than enough to make me recommend this novel, but Tedrowe succeeds in so much more than crafting the perfect protagonist. While we know without a doubt that Becky is in the wrong the very first time that she skims from the town accounts, there is a sense of justice in her actions --- a real “sticking it to the man” attitude. The hedonism and the sense of order to this is just as intoxicating for the reader as it is for Becky. In fact, we are so entranced by her inventiveness and greed that, much like Becky, we forget until far too late that there are townsfolk who will suffer from her theft. In one particularly poignant scene, a local man screams at Becky as businesses go under and the town festival is canceled, always with the excuse that there is “no money in the budget.” Coming from Becky, the town’s best girl, this is inexcusable. “You said fall…. We’ve waited. Now it’s goddamn fall!” the man yells, bringing into harsh relief the damage Becky has really done.

I won’t spoil the ending by revealing Becky Farwell’s last reinvention, but I can promise that it is every bit as satisfying as the very first scene of this remarkable book --- and every scene in between, too. Tedrowe has crafted an unforgettable heroine living in an unforgettable time, and her use of art and capitalism is as educational as it is plain fun to read. Perfect for readers of THE ASSISTANTS and Patricia Highsmith, THE TALENTED MISS FARWELL is a rip-roaring journey through greed, obsession and reinvention.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 2, 2020

The Talented Miss Farwell
by Emily Gray Tedrowe