I have had a hard time
this last year knowing what I wanted to read when I went to the library. (Note From the Future: This year, the library is closed due to a freaking pandemic, so I don’t have that problem anymore.) I keep a list of “Want To Read” books on Goodreads, but when I get to the library and am going through that list, everything just comes up “meh” to me. I enjoy reading historical fiction, but I do not want to read about World War II. I like the Victorian time period, but I still don’t feel right bringing a silly little romance novel to work to read on my lunch break. (Note From The Future: Oh that’s sweet! Remember when you worked in an office?!) And I haven’t been able to enjoy reading thrillers or mysteries for a while – mainly because the world is so fucking terrible, I am trying to infuse joy into everything I do.
(Note From the Future: Holy shit I wrote this so long ago and the world is not only fucking terrible, but the terrible seemed to skyrocket this weekend. Be safe, everyone.)
(Which is why I will NEVAH apologize for enjoying the reboot of Dynasty so. damn. much.)
So one Saturday in April (Saturday is Library Day for me now, and I love that I have that as a routine), I was wandering the fiction aisles and picking up so many books that looked slightly interesting according to their spine, but then when I read the back of those books I found that they were Christian Romance novels*. And when I got to the “C” section and found this book, by the same author who wrote Susannah Morrow and Prima Donna, I was so exhausted of looking that I said “Fuck it, I’ll give this one a shot”.
*I admit that I have a built-in, untried prejudice against Christian Romance novels. It comes from my personal beliefs and distrust of religion. I’m sure some of them are very well-written; clearly, judging by the fact that the Auburn Public Library appears to have cornered the market on them, seeing as how there are full series of them on nearly every shelf, the genre is also very very popular. Look, if one of my (three) readers have read one and can recommend one to me to try, I’ll do that. But until that day comes, I will be the one picking up the book and going, “Oooh, this looks good – dammit, Bethany Books!” in my local library.
City of Ash is historical fiction, taking place in Seattle in the late 1880s. Geneva Langley, wife of Nathan Langley and daughter of the founder of Stratford Mining, was the toast of Chicago Society. She hosted salons to discuss art, music, and theatre, and was the muse and patron of many the artist. Nathan, passionate at the beginning of their marriage, has grown cold and aloof. He aspires to get into politics, using his father-in-law’s blessing, money, and reputation. Ginny sees that the love in her marriage is gone, and in hopes of being given a divorce from Nathan, agrees to sit for a sculpture by the very-up-and-coming sculptor, Jean-Claude Marat.
On the night of the unveiling of the sculpture, everyone is scandalized – clearly, it is Ginny’s face and nude body memorialized in the marble, and everyone immediately assumes that Ginny and Marat had had an affair. Instead of granting her a divorce, Nathan provides a choice: either be institutionalized, or go west with him to Seattle, where he can run the Stratford Mining division there while running for office. Not wanting to be sent to an asylum, she goes to Seattle with Nathan.
Society in Seattle has already heard of her transgressions, and does not welcome Ginny, nor provide her the fresh start she was hoping for. Instead, she secludes herself in her and Nathan’s home, trying to be as well-behaved as possible. She longs for her salon days back in Chicago, but she wants to be perceived as the perfect little wife for hers and Nathan’s sake.
One night, Nathan brings her tickets to the local theatre, as a present for not causing any more scandal (and really, how could she? Stuck in the house all day, reading novels and conferring with the cook about meals, she really didn’t have any opportunities for scandal if she tried). They go see a melodrama about pirates, and Ginny has her first happy evening in months. She meets the Readings, society people who are actually kind of nice to her, and she learns that Mr. Reading has paid another local theatre troupe to be allowed to play Brutus in a performance of Julius Caesar. (Remember kids, Theatre is Bad News Bears for Society People – the jerks. You can watch theatre, but step foot on the boards for even a second and clearly you are a depraved person whose soul is in need of cleansing.)
Nathan decides to invest in the Regal Theatre, and one night brings home a playwright, Sebastian DeWitt, to meet with Ginny and discuss a play he has written. Ginny is honored that Nathan has thought of her in such a way, and reads the play and meets with DeWitt. She loves the play and encourages Nathan to sponsor it for production at the Regal.
A few weeks pass; and Ginny meets with DeWitt a few more times to discuss the play. One night they go to a performance of … something, I can’t remember, and I’m not looking it up at this point – but anyway, they stop at a pub for a beer before returning to Ginny’s house. Nothing happens, but DeWitt is very uncomfortable.
Nathan asks Ginny if she’d like to perform in the play that DeWitt has written. At first she hesitates, but then agrees – it’s always been an unacknowledged dream of hers to act, and she’d love the opportunity. So Nathan goes to the theatre and pays to allow Ginny to perform the lead role of Penelope Justis, the play that DeWitt has written.
The night they went to see the pirate melodrama, Nathan took notice of the second lead actress, Bea Wilkes. He comes back night after night, watching her. Bea is 29 years old, and has never had the lead role – she’s almost had it a number of times, but either another actress has cozied up to the manager or brought in a rich patron or who knows what, she hasn’t had the lead yet. So when Bea takes the notice of Nathan, she thinks “maybe this is her chance.”
Additionally, Sebastian DeWitt has approached her and told her that he has written a play for her – for her talents, and he intends for her to play the lead role. Of Penelope Justis.
Bea and Nathan have an affair, but it is not a romantic one. Nathan will claim Bea after the performance is over and pretty much ravage her back in her hotel room. Bea feels that he is punishing someone else through her, and she does not entertain any thoughts of him leaving his wife for her. She is using him too, in hopes of having that lead role she wants so desperately. Nathan does leave her presents – butterfly hairpins, and a gorgeous blue cloak.
And just when Bea thinks she’s suffered enough, and she’s been rehearsing as Penelope for a few weeks – Nathan announces that his wife will be playing the lead role.
Ginny and Bea meet, and it does not. go. well. Bea is mortified that she actually placed faith that her role wouldn’t be taken away, and takes her anger and mortification out on Ginny. Ginny tries to get in her good graces, but having never acted before, she slows rehearsal down, which makes things worse.
One day at rehearsal, Bea actually lets it slip that she’s been fucking Nathan. And Ginny does not storm off, but instead pushes down her anger and betrayal to continue to perform the scene. She confronts Nathan about it when she gets home and asks to have Bea removed from the production –
“Well, I don’t demand that you have her let go, of course. But I should think it might ruin your political ambitions.”
“What has one to do with the other?”
“I imagine it would be quite the scandal if it was discovered that the head of Stratford and Brown was having an affair with a second-rate actress.” [p. 173]
But instead of getting angry, he asks if Ginny’s feeling well, and insinuates that she’s suffering from a delusion.
The next day, Bea is dismissed from the production of Penelope Justis, but remains in the company. Nathan takes Bea out for dinner that night at one of the hoitiest places in Seattle, and at his request, wears the hairpins and cloak Nathan had given her. During dinner, Nathan asks Bea to perform a scene from a play where the lead role accuses her husband of having an affair and descending into madness. Buying into his flattery, Bea agrees, though she feels a bit uncomfortable about performing in front of people who may not realize that she is performing, y’know? But she does, and at one point a doctor comes over to ask if she’s all right or needs help, and Nathan instead walks Bea out of the restaurant – while she’s still acting the scene – and says, “I just need to get my wife home to bed.”
Because yes – Bea and Ginny look very alike – same height, brown hair, same posture. So it is very easy for strangers to mistake one for the other.
Which is exactly what Nathan wanted – a way to get Ginny put in that asylum for good. He arranged everything – the patronage of Sebastian DeWitt’s play; having Ginny meet Reading and plant the seed of her performing (which again, is a Bad Thing for Society Ladies to Do); allow Ginny to become friendly with DeWitt, hoping she would have another affair. Of course, Nathan didn’t realize that DeWitt was in love with Bea Wilkes, but he also doesn’t really care about that.
The day of the Seattle Fire, before rehearsal, Ginny is looking for something in Nathan’s study and finds a letter to Nathan from her father, agreeing with Nathan that something must be done about Ginny. They are apparently waiting for another doctor’s diagnosis in order to truly commit her. Ginny comes up with a plan to escape Seattle before that happens, and goes to rehearsal in hopes of finding DeWitt.
But after rehearsal, the Great Seattle Fire happens, burning everything in the business district to the ground – including the Regal Theatre. Bea and Ginny escape together, putting aside their differences in order to survive. When they make it past the burn line, Ginny has come up with another plan – to be dead, so she can escape.
She and Bea talk about their mutual experiences with Nathan, and learn the extent of his manipulations. Ginny breaks into her house to find cash to facilitate her escape, with Bea acting as lookout, but Nathan comes home unexpectedly. Nathan runs into Bea, and he is very concerned that he has not been able to find Ginny since the fire. Bea consoles him, long enough for Ginny to get away with the cash – except there is no cash, Nathan’s safe is cleaned out.
And then they come up together with another idea. With Ginny truly dead, Nathan would gain control of all of her assets – and Nathan does not have his own money to speak of. Wouldn’t it be better if Nathan were declared insane, and committed, and then Ginny could come back from the dead (suffering from amnesia all this time!) and take control of her life again?
Well, wouldn’t you know it – that’s almost the plot of Penelope Justis. Which Nathan has never read or seen performed.
I thought the book started off very slowly. It took me about a month to read it from start to finish – although in my defense, April & May have been very busy months at work, and there have been many a day where I couldn’t read on my lunch break, because I didn’t have a lunch break, I had to drive down to the State House and wait for the work sessions on bills to begin. (May was a hangry month for Alaina, y’all.) I also went to London for 30 hours, and I don’t bring library books on vacations, so I didn’t even pick the book up for a few days in there. Once the fire happened and Ginny and Bea started working together, the plot picked up a lot.
Before I end this, can we talk about Sebastian DeWitt’s name and how much it inspires Addison DeWitt and how much I hope that wasn’t a coincidence?!
[Bea] laughed. “Sebastian DeWitt. That cannot possibly be your real name.”
“Too improbable. Sebastian – he was a saint of some kind, wasn’t he?”
He looked surprised. “You’re Catholic?”
“Oh no. We did a play once. ‘Slay me not with words but with your arrows –‘”
“’And to my true heaven my soul will fly.’ I know it.”
“And then, of course, there’s the DeWitt. What a name for a writer. Are you witty, Mr. DeWitt?” [p. 207]
YOU GUYS. I fucking LOVE Addison DeWitt. I want to BE Addison DeWitt when I grow up. Before I die, I will stage a production of All About Eve, and not only will I *NOT ALLOW* Addison DeWitt to speak with A SOUTHERN ACCENT HOW DARE YOU, but I will direct myself as Addison DeWitt, because he is THE BEST PART in that play.
Anyways. The book was okay – it was a slow starter, I felt. But it wasn’t terrible. So, I dunno – two stars, I guess? I’ll give it an extra half star because it made me think of Addison DeWitt and that always makes me happy.
Also, the Guster Reading Challenge song for this book was “Getting Even” off of Goldfly, for reading “a book about revenge.”
Grade for City of Ash: 2.5 stars