RATING: 4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)
Housemaid Charlotte Farrow has managed to hide the existence of her child from the Banning household and their staff, mainly due to the help of Lucy, the Banning’s daughter. But now Lucy has left home to travel with her husband and a family emergency has forced Charlotte’s childminder to return her son to her at no advance notice. With no idea how to hide Henry from the other staff in the Prairie Avenue house, Charlotte allows them to come to the conclusion that the child was abandoned in the garden because the mother knew of Lucy’s charitable work. Charlotte struggles to keep up this facade as the Banning family decides what to do with the child in Lucy’s absence. But soon her infant son’s presence in the house isn’t Charlotte’s only problem, and the reappearance of Henry’s father forces Charlotte to reassess her present situation and make some hard decisions about her son’s future. Will Archie, a fellow servant, and his political connections be a help or a hindrance to Charlotte’s situation? Can she allow herself the opportunity to fall in love while she faces so many pressing dilemmas?
I’d like to start my review with an amusing story about my reading experience of The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow. It appears that my Kindle edition of this book is glitched, as I left the book at the 50% mark last night, under the impression that the book still had a way to go even if the chapter I was reading at the time seemed to be wrapping up quite a few things. I was honestly intrigued about where the novel was going to go from there, as so much had already taken place. Today I picked my Kindle up again, read a couple of pages and found myself at the Acknowledgements and Author’s Note! Evidently, something went wrong in the conversion of this book and 47% of it is blank. I basically read an entire novel in one afternoon! I believe that’s a credit to Olivia Newport, as this book was obviously so engaging that I didn't realise quite how much of it I read in one sitting.
I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book since I read the first book in the Avenue of Dreams series, The Pursuit of Lucy Banning, back in April 2012. The only change in my reading experience between these two books is that I discovered Downton Abbey a couple of months ago. My husband and I devoured the first two seasons in a couple of weeks while studying for our end of semester exams, and I can tell you, these books are a Downton Abbey addict’s dream. Although this series is set in Chicago towards the end of the nineteenth century, there’s a similar exploration of relationships between servants and masters, and the two separate worlds that they live in. Having studied a fair amount about the position of servants in Victorian Britain while at university and watched Downton Abbey, I find the topic fascinating, and particularly liked Olivia’s portrayal of the relationships between the below-stairs staff, especially the cook, butler and Sarah, the latter of whom I’m hoping will reappear in another book.
Although the romance between Charlotte and Archie isn’t as central as those in other historical novels from this period, I appreciated the insights into Archie’s interest in the changing face of politics and the treatment of workers. It was interesting to hear about new opportunities opening up for working class people, jobs that would take them outside the service lifestyle and give them more independence, such as factory and clerical work. Although I’m not a scholar of this particular time period in United States history, it appears that Olivia has researched this topic quite thoroughly, as her depictions of political events and the staff’s treatment of Archie’s views seemed realistic.
As for Charlotte and Henry, I really felt for her struggle to care for her son without bringing her true relationship with him to light. Regardless of whether her son was born inside or out of wedlock, it was impossible for a woman with a child to hold down a steady job in this period, particularly one in service. Charlotte truly does have a dilemma: if she reveals her relationship to Henry, she’ll lose her job and have no way to provide for him, but if she lets another servant care for him, she can continue to earn money and hopefully eventually be able to find another childminder for her son. Charlotte has to temporarily let go of her son in order to build a life for him. I actually got a little emotional reading about her struggle, and how she forced herself not to go to her son even when she desperately wanted to, for fear of giving herself away. When she eventually makes an incredibly difficult decision that she believes is in Henry’s best interests, I may have shed a tear or two.
The storyline about Henry’s father, which propels Charlotte into acting to protect Henry more than ever, wasn’t quite what I’d expected. But when I thought about it, I really can’t remember what we discovered about Charlotte in the previous book. She was a bit of a mystery in the first novel in the series, and the revelations in The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow make her all the more an intriguing character. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are several scenes towards the end of the novel that made it very hard to put the book down. I was only a little disappointed with the outcome of the situation, finding it a little bit too convenient. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that I do wish that some Christian historical novels would delve into the topic of divorce, rather than conveniently getting rid of a husband through another method. There are times, particularly when it comes to abusive relationships, where divorce is the only possible outcome, but I’ve rarely seem it explored in Christian fiction. I know that it’s not an ideal solution to a problem, but if more books explored the topic, perhaps it would be easier for modern women to openly discuss their marital problems. Furthermore, discussing divorce within different historical contexts would make for a rather interesting novel. I did appreciate that Olivia touched on it a little in this novel, and allowed her characters to discuss it as an option.
My only other complaint about this book would be that the ending felt a little rushed. Initially, I thought this was because when I originally finished the book, I didn’t realise how close I was to the end of the book due to my glitched Kindle conversion. But I did go back and reread the last chapter and it seemed like an awful lot was wrapped up and concluded. I did wish we’d been allowed to see a bit more of Charlotte and Henry’s new life, but hopefully that’ll be touched on in the next book in the series. While I have a feeling that the third book will explore the life of Sarah, another servant in the Banning household, I would also like to see more of Emmaline, Lucy’s aunt.
Although The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow didn’t capture me quite as much as the previous book in the Avenue of Dreams series, it still had a thoroughly compelling storyline. Fans of the series will be pleased to encounter a similar mixture of romance, suspense and upstairs-downstairs relationships, all within a well-researched historical context. The 1893 Chicago Exposition makes a fascinating backdrop for this series and I can’t wait to see what Olivia Newport comes up with next.
Review title provided by Revell.