As a fan of Civil War-era historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed the slim debut of THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY. An epistolary novel told in its entirety through letters, legal court inquests and journal entries, it mirrors the real-life story of a husband and wife in 1864-66 (with flashbacks and flash forwards).
While the narrative weaves back and forth in time between the 1860s and 1890s – and includes letters from at least a half-dozen characters in the telling of the story – I found it easy to follow. In fact, it is the author’s ability to seamlessly unveil the thoughts and reactions of various characters to the same events (but during different time periods of revelation) that made this a read full of tension. Rivers parses out the right details at just the right time, revealing details through just the right characters, creating a tangible stream of suspense and emotion.
I believe the best novels pose a question upfront – one that the reader feels she MUST discover the answer to. In this book’s case, we already know the “what?” (part of the book jacket description) – that Placidia is bound for jail and accused of having borne a child in her husband’s absence as he fights in the Civil War. But what we must find out is: Who is the father? Then we find ourselves clamoring to know: Under what circumstances did this birth occur? Why is she headed for jail? How did this happen? This book works backwards and forwards in time and is brilliant in the slow trickle of revealed details that make the reader hungry for more. There are plenty of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing up until the end.
I suspect those who have a greater knowledge of Greek mythology (I am completely deficient, unfortunately) and those who are familiar with Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, will find insightful parallels to the characters and events of The Second Mrs. Hockaday and Dickens’s masterpiece, as well as wonderful symbolism wrapped up in the references to Greek mythology. Such a lack of familiarity on my part did not, in any way, hinder my enjoyment of this story of resilience and love – a story of personal liberty and personhood, a story of injustice and ugliness in its many forms, but ultimately a story about the bonds of love and dignity. It’s a story of redemption, heartache and beauty.
Be prepared, this novel takes some liberties regarding what constitutes a ‘letter’ (though I have to admit that most epistolary novels I’ve read lately employ the same techniques). For instance, a true ‘letter’ wouldn’t include dialogue or read like an action scene, yet many do. This is done for obvious reasons – so that the novel doesn’t feel like a stale ‘retelling’ of a story and so that the reader can immerse herself in the scene. Once I got used to the style, I barely noticed it (I had the same reaction to Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge of the World), and honestly – again – as I was with Ivey’s novel, I am wowed. Any author who can tell a cohesive story through written missives entirely, possesses an incredible skillset. To create empathetic characters, a full story arc, and tension through letters, diaries and documents is impressive, indeed.
I definitely recommend THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY to fans of literary historical fiction, Civil War fiction, and – of course – those who love epistolary novels and don’t mind non-linear stories. I look forward to more from this talented author!
(A version of this review was published by Melissa Crytzer Fry at GoodReads on May 20, 2017. It is reposted here with permission of the author.)