All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Secrets Of Lizzie Borden by Brandy Purdy

on April 21, 2016

Secrets Of Lizzie BordenThe Secrets Of Lizzie Borden
Brandy Purdy
Kensington Books
2016, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

In her enthralling, richly imagined new novel, Brandy Purdy, author of The Ripper’s Wife, creates a compelling portrait of the real, complex woman behind an unthinkable crime.

Lizzie Borden should be one of the most fortunate young women in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her wealthy father could easily afford to provide his daughters with fashionable clothes, travel, and a rich, cultured life. Instead, haunted by the ghost of childhood poverty, he forces Lizzie and her sister, Emma, to live frugally, denying them the simplest modern conveniences. Suitors and socializing are discouraged, as her father views all gentleman callers as fortune hunters.

Lonely and deeply unhappy, Lizzie stifles her frustration, dreaming of the freedom that will come with her eventual inheritance. But soon, even that chance of future independence seems about to be ripped away. And on a stifling August day in 1892, Lizzie’s long-simmering anger finally explodes…

Vividly written and thought-provoking, The Secrets of Lizzie Borden explores the fascinating events behind a crime that continues to grip the public imagination—a story of how thwarted desires and desperate rage could turn a dutiful daughter into a notorious killer.

When I saw this on NetGalley, it really intrigued me because everyone knows the childish rhyme about Lizzie Borden giving her mother 40 whacks and then her father 41. But despite that, I realised that I didn’t really know a lot about this notorious figure so a fictionalised telling of her life worked well for me. I wasn’t bogged down by facts I already knew but yet anything that I was curious about I could look up later.

This story is told from Lizzie’s point of view, holding up two defining moments of her life, both of which where she’s covered in the blood of a woman. Firstly her mother, who dies of some sort of hemorrhage when Lizzie is just three years old and then the blood of her stepmother Abby some thirty-odd years later. In between is a life of deprivation, misery, bullying and unnecessary poverty. Lizzie’s father was an imposing, austere man who perhaps scarred by his own childhood poverty, seemed to set about making sure that never happened to him in adulthood with a single minded zeal that saw him accumulate wealth and clutch it tightly in his fist. So desperate was he to make a buck that when he ran a funeral parlour-type business he frequently relieved the dead of their valuables before they were buried, cut the feet off corpses to fit them in shorter, cheaper coffins and sold their teeth to a dentist who used them to make dentures. Despite the fact that he could’ve easily provided well for his two daughters, Lizzie and Emma (who was older by 10 years), he chose not to in what seemed to be a selfish desire to keep them dependent on him as well as to care for him presumably in his old age. He could’ve settled them with dowries, found them husbands but instead they became spinsters, still living in the family home in their thirties, pandering to his every tight-fisted whim.

There’s no doubt that this narrative paints Lizzie as someone to sympathise with. She’s heartbreakingly lonely. Her only friend is her sister, who at 10 years older, resents their new stepmother with a religious like zealotry and wastes no time recruiting Lizzie to her side. Abby, a large woman who enjoys cooking seemed like the type of woman who would’ve taken both of them and loved them fiercely and it seems that she tried with Lizzie. She was rebuffed at every turn as Lizzie, threatened with being a traitor to their mother’s memory by Emma, feared her sister enough to make sure she never responded to Abby’s overtures. Abby’s life seemed one of misery too, taking solace in the cakes, pies and biscuits she liked to bake and eat. She grew rounder, never had any children of her own, only two resentful stepchildren and a self-important husband, although it did appear that he did treat Abby quite well. Apart from Emma, Lizzie really has no one else in her life apart from Bridget, their maid who always finds a kind word for her. Her one fledgling friendship ends badly, she is constantly shouted down by her father that any boy interested in her only wants his money and that she’s worthless, useless and silly. Emma is paranoid about all the money their father has hoarded going to Abby instead of becoming rightfully theirs and her poisonous attitude seems to slowly eat at Lizzie. But it’s something surprisingly simple and Abby’s reaction to it that this book uses at the catalyst for Lizzie snapping.

I think that given the right circumstances, people are capable of anything. In a way I see Lizzie portrayed here as a battered daughter and sister, constantly put down and put upon by others. Staring down the barrel of that times one thousand, she lashes out in not just an attempt to escape her fate but also vent some thirty years of frustration. I think there’s been an attempt to find some sort of reason for why she did what she did – after all there has to be a reason because well bred thirty year old spinsters don’t just snap and bludgeon their parents to death with a hatchet. That’s how she’s acquitted in part, because people can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that she could possibly have done it. Ladies just don’t do that sort of thing. The trouble is, it’s such a terrible thing, even taking into account Lizzie’s portrayed life in this story. It’s easy to find sympathy for her but……not to the extent where you can understand the actions.

All in all this is an interesting story although it did seem to take me quite a while to get through it. It felt very long although the page count here doesn’t seem to indicate that. There’s still quite a bit of story to go after Lizzie’s acquittal and I felt that in a way the constant examination of her sexuality ended up dominating the story. I understand it came from her loneliness and desire to be loved as well as showcasing her naivete but at times it felt quite repetitive.


Book #74 of 2016

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