All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Jade Widow – Deborah O’Brien

on September 19, 2013

Jade WidowThe Jade Widow
Deborah O’Brien
Random House AU
2013, 327p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Twelve years after the death of her husband Charles Chen, Amy Chen is still wearing black, still in mourning just like Queen Victoria mourning her husband Albert. It is 1885 and Amy is raising her son Charlie and spending time with her late husband’s foster family, the Millers.

She also has a project. Inspired, she wants to build the grandest hotel in country New South Wales and she’s going ahead with her dream. She has purchased the land and hired someone to draw up her perfect plans. Even though she needs some help from the bank, John Miller provides guarantor for her on a loan, because as a woman, Amy can’t get a loan in her own name. But the Millers have faith in her and they know that whatever she turns her hand to, it will be a success. John Miller is a progressive thinker – his acceptance of his own daughter’s dream is proof positive of that.

Eliza Miller wants to be a doctor. Although a university in NSW is taking its first female medical student, Eliza cannot join her as she has not yet completed a year of an arts degree, a pre-requisite. Forced out of the country, Eliza has completed her first few years of a medical degree at Sorbonne, the famous French school. Returning home for a break, she discovers that the job she thought would be hers, working as a doctor in the local community has gone to someone else – a man naturally. And to make things even worse, that man is living in her own family house as a boarder. Eliza is determined not to be friendly to him, no matter how wonderful he might be. She accepted long ago that she would never marry. She would have a career instead.

When the potential of love comes into Amy’s life with the opening of her dream imminent, she is confused. She loved Charles so much – loves him still. Is it possible to let go of that and move on with someone who seems perfect for her?

The Jade Widow picks up a little over a decade after the events of Mr Chen’s Emporium. Amy has not taken herself out of the black widow’s weeds, modelling herself somewhat on Queen Victoria, who mourned her husband for the rest of her life. She wears only black or navy blue clothes and hasn’t even looked twice at another man since she lost her beloved Charles. She dedicates her life to raising Charlie, their son, trying to turn him into the sort of gentle, non-confrontational man that her late husband would be proud of. Charlie is at the age though where he really should be sent to school in order to continue his education and also, because Amy is somewhat overprotective of him, obsessing about germs and infections. It’s a difficult decision for Amy to have to make and it’s made somewhat more difficult by the prejudices she knows that Charlie will face in a schoolyard situation because of his mixed heritage.

Amy’s “sister” Eliza is an early feminist and suffragette, wanting equality and the chance to have opportunities that the men do. She chose to go far from home in order to study and she faces discrimination there too (being referred to as a hermaphrodite). Back in Australia, women cannot vote. They lag far behind men in rights and opportunities and Eliza makes her disapproval of these things (and others, such as the fact that Australian men are sent to fight a British war in Africa) well known. I really liked the character of Eliza and her outspokenness and her determination. Her story with the new doctor in town was really enjoyable and I found myself eager for those parts of the story. The narrative alternates between Amy and Eliza as they face struggles to gain satisfaction in their professional and personal lives.

I’m the same age as Amy (31) and I can’t imagine what it was like for her to lose her husband after they had so little time together and then be left raising their child alone. I could understand her paranoia about diseases and about losing Charlie – he was all she had left of her husband and their time together and how difficult it was for her to accept that it’s time for her to let him go. She can’t protect and shelter him from the world forever. Her relationship with Charles cost her dearly. Her father cast her out, forbidding all other family members to speak to her. Amy gets a chance at happiness in this novel, at a new beginning, at starting again. She’s still pretty much a young woman. 31 in those days isn’t exactly what it is now but it’s still young. She’d have had many opportunities for expanding her family. The way in which this played out left me feeling…deflated. Amy is a very interesting character, she’s very focused and she clearly has placed her late husband on a pedestal, heights that no other person can ever dream to achieve which is unrealistic. No one is perfect. People have their flaws and no one should ever be held up and judged against another person. I know this is a study of life in late 1800’s Australia, not a romance novel but still. I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad when I finished the book.

However, despite the ending not being my preference, I really enjoyed the rest of the book. I haven’t read a lot of novels set in Australia around this time and this book gives a skilled picture of what life must’ve been like for ambitious young women who want to succeed.

7/10

Book #242 of 2013

AWW2013

The Jade Widow counts towards my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s the 88th novel read so far for the challenge.

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2 responses to “The Jade Widow – Deborah O’Brien

  1. Kailijade says:

    Sounds like a great read’

  2. Marg says:

    I still need to read this one!

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