The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain definitely had all of the components of a beach read. There was death and loss, marriages, childhood friendships, engagements, broken engagements, an epidemic, an unplanned pregnancy, a world war, family feuds, long lost loves, issues of racism, sexism, classism, sexual assault, family secrets, gas rationing fraud, a car accident and more death, some mysticism and spirituality thrown in.
This book had all of the things. And honestly it left me a little dizzy.
The protagonist Tess DeMello was born and raised a good Catholic girl from Baltimore. She was engaged to be married to her childhood sweetheart when one “mistake” changes everything. Although what the book blurb describes as a mistake I’d describe as sexual assault.
I don’t consider this a spoiler since it happens within the first 30 pages of the book…
Tess gets uncharacteristically drunk during a night out with her best friend Gina. They meet two strangers and join them for drinks under Gina’s encouragement. Tess and one of the men, Henry, exchange almost no words during drinks and then dinner. But after they return home (they’re all staying at the same boarding house), Henry follows Tess up to her room uninvited and they sleep together even though Tess offers no invitation, no consent, and is barely able to stand. And she’d been a virgin. A few of the characters in the book ask her the question at different points, “did he rape you?” To which she replies “No” each time, blaming it on herself and the cocktails.
The lack of acknowledgement by any character or storyline that this was sexual assault was the book’s first misstep for me. The story even goes so far as to develop Henry as an admirable character. So I guess all of this is to say that the book and I got off on the wrong foot.
And yet I wanted to like Tess, despite rolling my eyes at some some very out-of-character choices. I was rooting for her story, but ultimately I couldn’t figure out which thread to follow. Should I be invested in her nursing career, her old love, her new love, her path to motherhood? All of which were in conflict with each other. And was the subplot of the Henry’s mysterious relationships, or his mysterious occupation, the town mystic and his vague messages from beyond, or the small town dynamics and emerging Polio epidemic the one to follow? For me, there was just so much going on that I never fully invested in any one storyline. And I couldn’t tell where it was all leading, but not in a good way.
It was a compelling enough story for me to read it quickly, but I wish a few of the subplots or odd left turns had been left out. I can’t say this is a book I’ll be recommending, but I also don’t think it’s a waste of a read. For the right reader this could be a fantastic story that keeps you guessing! It just wasn’t for me.
Thanks for reading!