Cynthia Sally Haggard’s FAREWELL MY LIFE initially thrusts the reader into 1920s-era Washington, D.C., looking at the precarious lives of four women: Angelina, mother to teenagers Grace and Violet, and the elder Aunt Paulina. Immediately, it’s impossible to pigeonhole them. Angelina’s passionate, norm-defying behavior belies a world-weariness born from difficult experiences–but so does Paulina’s balancing of traditional values against the transforming world Grace and Violet are entering. Throughout the book, the relationships and conflicts among the four anchor a winding story of courtship, 1920s and ‘30s-era political intrigue, secrets, and scandals, with Grace at the heart of it all.
The complexity and interactions of the four central women are refreshing. All of them have their flaws, and all of them are distinct (Angelina is perceptive but vain and overly strident while Paulina is fooled repeatedly, but unwavering in her love for and commitment to Grace and Violet, to take just two examples). While the core of the story concerns 17-year-old Grace’s various gentleman suitors, a cast of characters from demure to unsettling to ribald, Angelina, Paulina, and Violet always are the most compelling of all.
One of Grace’s love interests, Russell, adds an individualized sort of darkness to match the upheaval of the era. His experiences in the then-recent Great War and on the receiving end of bigotry against Italians in early-twentieth century America both make his icier moments eminently believable. The first, early twist in the story was legitimately startling, but likewise consistent with what we know of Russell. From that moment forward, the tension between Russell’s shadowy qualities and his overwhelming desire for Grace remains a harrowing constant. Even with Russell, Haggard still imbues him with complexity, forcing readers to empathize with him, however reluctantly or partially. Later twists and turns refuse to show him as flat, simply and utterly villainous; his past traumas are given serious weight, even if they do not absolve him of his worst actions. It’s a delicate balance that, most of the time, Haggard accomplishes. Toward the middle of the book, Grace’s eager suitors interact altogether—the only time—in one place, an expertly drawn passage told iteratively from the different perspectives. It’s nearly forensic, in the best possible sense; each partial perspective frames how limited our individual observation of a situation can be, and the ramifications of the scene echo all the way to the conclusion.
There are some, albeit rare, frustrations: the treatment of swearing (to censor the words or not?); some clunky expositional dialogue or unnecessary reiteration, especially toward the end. The ending might be rather divisive, then becoming almost an inevitability—but all readers will have an opinion on it either way. In the end, FAREWELL MY LIFE will appeal to fans of historical fiction, broadly, to readers of fraught romantic courtship tales set in the past (think Atonement or Revolutionary Road). Droll, dramatic, frightening, immersive, Haggard’s work grabbed my attention from the first pages and kept it the entire way.
In the spirit of classic novels grappling with gender and class, Cynthia Sally Haggard’s FAREWELL MY LIFE is a sweeping, beautifully rendered addition to the historical fiction canon.
~Andy Carr for IndieReader