Monday, September 12, 2016

Review: The Woman in the Photo

There are a number of themes and nuances to Mary Hogan's latest novel, The Woman in the Photo. You can choose to analyze and consciously ponder your thoughts on DNA, social class, adoption, and natural disasters (to name a few), or you can get completely lost in a well told, interesting historical novel. I admit I was mostly in the latter category but I definitely found myself thinking about nature vs nurture while I admired the strength of the two heroines in this novel.

Here's the synopsis:
In this compulsively readable historical novel, from the author of the critically-acclaimed Two Sisters, comes the story of two young women—one in America’s Gilded Age, one in scrappy modern-day California—whose lives are linked by a single tragic afternoon in history.
1888: Elizabeth Haberlin, of the Pittsburgh Haberlins, spends every summer with her family on a beautiful lake in an exclusive club. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains above the working class community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the private retreat is patronized by society’s elite. Elizabeth summers with Carnegies, Mellons, and Fricks, following the rigid etiquette of her class. But Elizabeth is blessed (cursed) with a mind of her own. Case in point: her friendship with Eugene Eggar, a Johnstown steel mill worker. And when Elizabeth discovers that the club’s poorly maintained dam is about to burst and send 20 million tons of water careening down the mountain, she risks all to warn Eugene and the townspeople in the lake’s deadly shadow.
Present day: On her 18th birthday, genetic information from Lee Parker’s closed adoption is unlocked. She also sees an old photograph of a genetic relative—a 19th century woman with hair and eyes likes hers—standing in a pile of rubble from an ecological disaster next to none other than Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Determined to identify the woman in the photo and unearth the mystery of that captured moment, Lee digs into history. Her journey takes her from California to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from her present financial woes to her past of privilege, from the daily grind to an epic disaster. Once Lee’s heroic DNA is revealed, will she decide to forge a new fate?
The synopsis had it right - The Woman in the Photo really was "compulsively readable." In fact, it may have helped me have an even better cardio workout than usual. I was totally riveted before the flood took place in the story but I knew reading about the actual event would be pretty intense. I got to that part as I was on the exercise bike at the gym and I was so tense and heartbroken for the characters that I pedaled a little harder than usual. My boyfriend jokingly said I was trying to outrun the flood but, in a way, I think he was right. I was so completely immersed in the story that I think I was trying to urge characters to move faster, to get out of harm's way because I knew what was coming. Does that sound a little ridiculous? Maybe. But trust me when I say they were very powerful chapters. 

I wasn't really sure why Elizabeth's POV was first person while Lee's was third. I also wasn't a fan that all of a sudden we no longer had Elizabeth's perspective. I don't know why Hogan wrote it like that but I was a little sad when I realized she wouldn't be going back to Elizabeth. All that being said, I did enjoy the dual perspectives. It would have been interesting to read a novel purely from either character but joining the two brought a much deeper meaning to the story.

Mary Hogan hooked me at the start with a story about a historical event I knew nothing about and kept me engaged with characters whose lives intrigued me. The Woman in the Photo is so much more than a fictional retelling of a horrific natural disaster though. Hogan weaves together a captivating story about two different young women that will keep you turning the pages until there are no more to turn.

*A copy of this novel was provided by the publisher, HarperCollins, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

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