Jane Smiley, A Dangerous Business (2022)

As soon as I saw Jane Smiley’s book in Netgalley, I knew I wanted to read it. A historical novel, a Western mixed with some mystery? Even better! I know that whatever setting or genre she chooses, Jane Smiley writes engaging stories and characters I’ll want to follow.

This is not the first book by Jane Smiley I read. Decades ago I read A thousand acres, I tried to read the Greenlanders but didn’t finish it. I think I read Moo but I don’t remember it, and this blog has a post about Duplicate Keys. I’ve not followed everything she wrote because at one point she was too interested in horses for my taste, but she’s definitely a writer I keep on my radar.

In this novel there are also horses, and beautiful coastal landscapes, but her interest is more women: strong and independent women making choices for themselves far from the social conventions.

We’re in 1851 in Monterey, California and the story is told by Eliza Ripple, a young widow who works as a prostitute in a brothel. This is no tear-jerking sad tale of misery and exploitation. Eliza is rather satisfied of her job, her life is better and safer than when she was the abused wife of a no-good adventurer. When he died in a bar fight, she didn’t consider returning to her religious parents, who had preferred seen her married to this man than with an Irish Catholic she loved. Now, under the rule and protection of the madam, Eliza provides a service to lonely men, sailors, ranchers and has no qualms about it.

Eliza is a very likeable character, something that some readers might feel a bit weird given her sex worker status. She does not feel ashamed or victimized. She’s curious and plucky. In her free time she likes reading detective novels like those of Edgar Poe’s Dupin mysteries, but she’s also very matter of fact. The sex scenes in the book are neither heaven nor hell, it’s just part of her life.

I can’t say that the book is perfect, especially when it comes to the mystery itself. But I really enjoyed the atmosphere of Gold Rush Monterey, an unusual take on that period (with allusions to the coming Secession war) and a far cry from the clichés of the Western prostitute. And it makes me want to revisit other books by Jane Smiley.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

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