This novel follows Eleanor Burden, a woman with a peculiar responsibility. She has returned from a visit to Vienna in 1898 with a secret destiny. Although she lost the “love of her life”, she carries home with her a mysterious journal that lays out her future and that of the world. Once back in Boston, she marries stolid banker Frank Burden and takes her place in society while secretly pursuing the tasks assigned to her by the journal.
As she moves forward through the events of the early 20th century, such as the sinking of the Titanic and two world wars, she meets and works with many giants of history, such as William James, J.P. Morgan, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. A few hints are dropped about the origins of the journal and a man named Wheeler Burden.
I didn't realise when I started it that this book is a sequel to his first novel, The Little Book. Although reviews say that it can stand alone, reading the first book, in which Wheeler is apparently the main character, would have allayed the rather frustrating withholding of information through far too much of the book. Much would have been clear right from the beginning if I'd read the earlier book.
The tone is quite distant and dry, that of someone from the future, a historian, recounting the events of Eleanor’s life and assuming her feelings and reactions based on extensive research. Documents such as letters and journals are cited, supplemented with enough dramatic scenes to keep the story alive. Due to this voice, I found it hard to engage with the characters. They seemed created to serve the plot rather than the plot growing out of the characters.
The story, though, intrigued me. Eleanor's commitment to fulfilling her destiny and her occasional questioning and despair provide fascinating insight into questions of predestination and free will. The philosophies and theories of Freud and Jung are described adroitly and fit naturally into the story. They contribute to the uncertainty about what constitutes sanity and what psychosis.
Historical details reveals the extent of the author's research. I enjoyed experiencing the grand sweep of history in a single novel, reminding of taking Western Civilisation at university from a professor who announced each new dizzying wave with the words, “We now see appearing on the horizon . . .”
Essentially a fairy tale, the story received many rave reviews. Perhaps I would not be so lukewarm in my praise if I'd read its predecessor. What sequels have you read that truly stand alone?