As my review appears in the New York Journal of Books
In The Lioness of Boston, author Emily Franklin makes a fascinating case for following the beat of one’s own drum. The thoroughly researched historical fiction account of Isabella Stewart Gardner deftly depicts a woman coming into her own within the confines of high-society Boston as perched on the cusp then seen all the way through the Gilded Age.
The four-part story begins in 1861 and sweeps through changing times and multiple continents to 1924, beginning in the first-person voice of a young bride from New York, who struggles to find acceptance in the inhospitable milieu of her blue-blooded husband’s family, only to triumph in the end by leaving her culturally advantageous, lasting mark upon the city that once shunned her.
It is 1861, and 20-year-old Isabella Stewart Gardner is too naïve to realize she is unacceptably unconventional. Newly married to Jack Gardner—the brother of her childhood schoolmate—she dons the blinders of optimism, now that she’s joined Jack’s prominent Boston family. She speaks to the heart of every woman who knows she is totally unique while being widely perceived as sorely different. Isabella contemplates her predicament and says, “Marriage seemed to bring with it an end not only of girlhood but of being in the world as a person with potential. I wanted to hold fast to that possibility—that there was more for me still.”
Isabella’s sister-in-law Harriet advises, “Everyone is watching to see if you will settle in to Boston life. . . . Jack’s standing allows entry, but time and time again you prove that you will not live up to expectations.” When Harriet takes Isabella to the ladies sewing circle, which doubles as one of society’s litmus tests, the outspoken Isabella is a failure. In the New York Times, Isabella reads of Boston’s sewing circle, “Not to be admitted to these mysterious coteries is a species of social ostracism of which the severity is perhaps fully appreciated by the native-born Bostonian.”
Although Isabella is made aware that she wears the wrong shoes, shares her thoughts without a filter, and fraternizes with the wrong people, she is disarmingly likable and persists in cultivating her own interests. When she forms friendships with men in influential positions having to do with literature, the zoological society, and natural sciences, she becomes involved with areas
beyond the customary purview of women and grows to be an object of community fascination to the point where she is frequently written about in the local paper.
When Isabella’s standing as a young wife and mother promises to recommend her, fate has the last word, and when a heartbreaking and life-defining event occurs, the resilient Isabella proves she is constitutionally incapable of being fully deterred.
As time moves on, and in the wake of multiple deaths of friends and family members close to the Gardners, Jack takes Isabella to London to dislodge her grief and revive her spirits. While abroad, Isabella aligns with an artistic community of creative misfits who eventually make good. She befriends such artists as Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, and Whistler, who gather around Isabella as she develops a keen interest in art, which comes to include multicultural antiques, objects d’art, and all that pertains to visual refinement.
In Boston, Isabella fraternizes with Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, poet Julia Ward Howe, and novelist Francis Marion Crawford, with whom she begins a clandestine relationship. Through the years, as Jack and Isabella travel back and forth from Boston to Europe, Isabella’s relationships with her iconic circle of friends makes for fascinating correspondence, which Franklin shares throughout the story in a series of interspersed letters that cleverly enlighten the reader to the personal interests of the correspondents, while bringing into focus a woman’s place amid the nuances of the times.
The crowning glory of this multilayered story is the author’s brilliant use of language, which is pitch and tone perfect in animating Isabella Gardner and all other characters, giving us great understanding of the time’s voice and concerns, in multiple settings. The story revolves around well-heeled people and all that makes up their opulent world. The vivid details given to art, literary achievement, and master paintings are seamlessly part of the story.
Isabella Stewart Gardner is driven by the desire to fulfill her own potential. She’s a woman on a personal mission against the judgmental eyes of society. In her written correspondence to Charles Eliot Norton, a professor at Harvard University, Isabella writes of her long-range vision, “Art is not so much the memory of the truth. It’s the memory of what we wish those moments were. . . . I think I should like to collect those moments. I mean to explain somehow the connection I feel between art and memory. A museum of the mind.” Later, she shares the mission statement for the museum she ultimately builds, “I would give the world—or Boston at least—a place, and by doing so it would be as though I were giving the world my own body, my own mind. Here, I would say. Take me.”
The Lioness of Boston is a captivating story of a significant woman in Boston’s history who left that city a cultural legacy to last the ages. This beautiful novel will appeal to those who love masterful historical fiction, literary fiction, and stories of triumphant women who leave an indelible mark.
Emily Franklin is the author of more than twenty novels and a poetry collection, Tell Me How You Got Here. Her award-winning work has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Guernica, JAMA, and numerous literary magazines as well as long-listed for the London Sunday Times Short Story Award, featured and read aloud on NPR and named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lioness of Boston by Emily Franklin”
Thanks for sharing your review, Claire. Hugs.
Thank you for commenting, dear Teagan!
Nice review! Thanks for sharing.