Like a River Glorious: Reading My Favorite Author’s First Book

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I was a voracious reader as a child, teen and young adult. I remember the Carolyn Haywood Betsy and Eddie books, Encyclopedia Brown and All of Kind Family. I didn’t discover the wonder of Lucy Maude Montgomery, not really, until the early years of my marriage. The same with J.K. Rowling and Rosamunde Pilcher. (While I still consider the Harry Potter books to be a fun little romp, I can’t compare them with Pilcher, they aren’t in the same class at all). Somewhere in all those years, filled with their fair share of twaddle, I discovered Lawana Blackwell.

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I read the Courtship of the Vicar’s Daughter. It was a gift from my then boyfriend, now ex-high school boyfriend. It turned out to be the second in a series. I sometimes find it amusing that the relationship ended after two and half years, but the book still sits on my shelf nearly 15 years later. I reread that book, along with Blackwell’s others every year. But for some reason I never went back. I loved the trios, the Greshem Chronicles (along with its additional fourth book) and the London Tales. I even enjoyed A Table by The Window as an entity unto itself. But I never tried to read her older four novels. When I think about it, I’m not sure why it took me so long.

I think I was afraid. Afraid that this voice that spoke to me from the page as an old friend and later a fellow writer (though I don’t yet consider myself her peer let alone her equal), would be changed. That by reading her early work I would see the cracks in the façade and peek behind the curtain, thus losing the mystery.

But desperate for something to read, lest my writing inspiration dry up altogether and not in the mood to tackle a new author (though Naomi Novik’s new book still sits half finished on my nightstand, waiting for me to try it again), I logged onto paperback swap and wished for the first book in her Victorian Serenade series.

I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, I can see how she has grown as an author. The prose is not quite as tight, the characters a little less realistic and the ending a tad too predictable, but I liked it. No, it won’t be a new favorite. (Which, for the record, is Leading Lady, but it only edges out the Dowry of Miss Lydia Clark by a tad, as it is nearly tied with Courtship of the Vicar’s daughter anyway). The plot had some unique twists and I found it to be darker than Blackwell’s other work. Maybe it is the grit that makes it feel just a little too much, like the author was trying too hard, but yet it makes me respect her more as an author. This was her first published novel, at least to my knowledge. She didn’t play it safe. She wasn’t afraid to show the darker, grittier side of life. I found the image of a man being treated in a Crimean war hospital particularly poignant.

“Then to Adam’s ultimate horror, Satan–covered with blood and holding a knife–turned in his direction and motion to his demons . . . As he gladly gave himself up to the comforting nothingness, his mind registered astonishment that Satan would speak the Queen’s English and wear a British army uniform.”

Wow! She had me right there. Yes, I saw the ending coming, in a way that I often do in most romance novels. (The exception being A Garden in Paris and A Hilltop in Tuscany where Stephanie Grace Whitson evolved the plot so slowly over the course of the two books that the ending is almost a surprise, yet it isn’t really a surprise because when you look back you can see the beautiful, winding road that led to the end.) But yet Blackwell took me there in ways I wasn’t expecting.

I don’t think I realized that the other books were actually related, originally believing them to each be stand alone pieces. Unfortunately book 2 was been lost by the US Post Office and books three and four sat on my nightstand taunting me. I’m also resisting the urge to reread all of her other books again, but I want to wait. I wait to appreciate these early books for what they are, without comparing them too closely with her others.

Why is she one of my favorites when I have read, arguably, more successful or talented writers? Because she lets me see what I could be. There are authors that I read who make me mourn what I can never write. There are those who make me furious because the work is just that bad and yet someone published it. (No doubt the same guardians of good literature who claim that indie publishing removes the all important gatekeepers of what is worth reading). Then you have authors like Blackwell who are part role model, part secret pleasure. Both inspiring and rejuvenating as I page through her books yet again. Never underestimate how your words may impact someone else, especially another writer.

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