Review: Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro

Monday, April 11, 2016
Title: Rare Objects
Author: Kathleen Tessaro
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 400
Published: expected April 12 2016
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 2/5

Maeve Fanning is a first generation Irish immigrant, born and raised among the poor, industrious Italian families of Boston’s North End by her widowed mother. Clever, capable, and as headstrong as her red hair suggests, she’s determined to better herself despite the overwhelming hardships of the Great Depression.

However, Maeve also has a dangerous fondness for strange men and bootleg gin—a rebellious appetite that soon finds her spiraling downward, leading a double life. When the strain proves too much, Maeve becomes an unwilling patient in a psychiatric hospital, where she strikes up a friendship with an enigmatic young woman, who, like Maeve, is unable or unwilling to control her un-lady-like desire for freedom.

Once out, Maeve faces starting over again. Armed with a bottle of bleach and a few white lies, she lands a job at an eccentric antiques shop catering to Boston’s wealthiest and most peculiar collectors. Run by an elusive English archeologist, the shop is a haven of the obscure and incredible, providing rare artifacts as well as unique access to the world of America’s social elite. While delivering a purchase to the wealthy Van der Laar family, Maeve is introduced to beautiful socialite Diana Van der Laar—only to discover she’s the young woman from the hospital.

Reunited with the charming but increasingly unstable Diana and pursued by her attractive brother James, Mae becomes more and more entwined with the Van der Laar family—a connection that pulls her into a world of moral ambiguity and deceit, and ultimately betrayal. Bewitched by their wealth and desperate to leave her past behind, Maeve is forced to unearth her true values and discover how far she’ll to go to reinvent herself.

Kathleen Tessaro has an eye for detail and a talent for vividly re-imagining periods of history in less than five hundred pages.  Though Rare Objects ended up not being my favorite of her novels, it was still quite readable. On the whole, it felt descriptive, dedicated, a tad predictable, and somewhat slow moving. I could have rated this higher if the plot had been less staid or had the characters possessed more spark. It also didn't help matters that the secondary plot with Angela and her family connections felt unnecessary and bogged down my momentum,

Rare Objects starts off fairly well, with main character Maeve trying to get back on her feet in the midst of the Great Depression and some personal setbacks plaguing her. As a first-generation immigrant, and an Irish one at that, she finds herself pretending to be someone else, from another world in order to land a job, make friends, find a boyfriend. This lands her in the orbit of her friend and foil, Diana, and from there the book stalls. The friendship between the two is supposed to be this great bond over shared experience and secrets, but it felt half-formed and shallow. The friendship between the two women is pivotal to the advancement of plot but therein lies it issue. Not only is their relationship lifeless, it lacks authenticity or emotion. There's no real reason these two would bond, nor does the author make a reason for it besides plot reasons.

I did like the differing experiences and perspectives that Maeve and Diane brought to the novel, even if I felt they didn't mesh well as friends. Maeve's background is one of poverty and a single parent household, and Diane's history is checkered with hospital stays and long trips aboard for various health reasons. The lives they lead -- swilling gin, working for a living, staying out all night, taking lovers -- is not respectable and the two women must balance old world expectations with a new world sensibility. Maeve makes many mistakes, trying to navigate this path but she's a complex girl and Tessaro layers her personality with a few surprises. 

The less said about the romance in Rare Objects, the better. It's disappointing but I can't say that I was fan of how any of Maeve's multiple attachments were handled. I did like that there was more than one love interest, but neither option felt realized or viable. One was too sensational, especially at the end, and the other felt too open-ended and open to interpretation. Diane's lovelife was more tumultuous, but one that actually engendered emotion and empathy. 

If the novel was faster-paced, or was a tad less introspective, the secondary plotlines with the Italian communuty trimmed back, Rare Objects would feel more streamlined. As it was, it was a long book for only actually possessing 400 pages. There were strong elements but on the whole this was a muddled follow up to The Perfume Collector.

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