The Marriage Bed
by Stephanie Mittman
(Dell, $5.50, PG-13) ISBN: 0-440-22182-X
*****
Fans of Pamela Morsi take note, The Marriage Bed by Stephanie Mittman is definitely your cup of tea! But even if your tastes don't run to homespun, our town sort of books, you still might enjoy it, because this is an exceptionally original and beautifully written novel.

Although the turn-of-the-century, small town setting of The Marriage Bed is familiar, the plot was quite unlike anything I've read before. Most romances follow the courtship of the hero and heroine up to marriage, and some begin with an arranged marriage. But the love story in this novel begins three years after hero Spencer Williamson and heroine Olivia Sacotte marry, and despite its unorthodox approach, it works extremely well.

Livvy Sacotte has always loved Spencer Williamson -- since she was a little girl and he was her older brother Remy's best friend. To Spencer, Livvy is just his best friend's kid sister. Spencer falls in love with and marries someone else, and Livvy, who will never love another, resigns herself to a life of spinsterhood. But then as fate will have it, Spencer loses his beloved wife and two children to a diphtheria epidemic. Afterwards, Spencer becomes bitter and withdrawn, vowing never to love anyone again, so he will never be hurt again.

Several years go by, and Spencer realizes he cannot manage the farm alone. Against his better judgment, he is persuaded to marry Livvy. He figures he can give her a home, and she can help him with the cooking and cleaning -- but he can never love her. He has promised himself not to, because it is too painful, and also to stay true to the memory of his lost family. For her part, Livvy knows that she is by far Spencer's second choice. But she hopes that with her love she can draw him out of his grief, and give him a second chance at life. Livvy also desperately hopes that she can give Spencer more children.

Spencer, however, has other plans. To make certain he will never lose another child, he "short shifts" Livvy in lovemaking; Livvy, who is innocent of all sexual matters, doesn't realize the difference. But she does realize that all is not right with her marriage. For the next three years she tries heroically to love Spencer; but he stays stubbornly stuck in his grief, and Livvy never conceives the child she prays for. She feels she has failed on each front, for not being lovable enough, and for being barren.

Then, when Livvy is called upon to raise her dead sister's children, she feels she has been given a second chance to be a mother. But Spencer is dead set against it, for the noise and clamor of youngsters would disturb his wallowing. Livvy defies him and sends for the children anyway, knowing that the children need a home, as much as they need the children. A series of events is put into motion where Livvy discovers her husband's lies and betrayal. Spencer realizes, when he is afraid Livvy may die, that he is still capable of love, that he does love her. Their estrangement and reconciliation make one of the most satisfying and uplifting reads I've experienced in a great while.

It is a testament to Stephanie Mittman's talent that such a story, which is a wee bit grim, could be so joyous to read. Indeed, The Marriage Bed is a beautifully crafted, elegantly structured novel, and Mittman is to be praised for her simple but heartfelt prose, and the depth and feeling in her characterization. Her evocation of rural life in Maple Stand, Wisconsin, is also to be noted -- I was reminded of L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gable books, though Avonlea never saw so many passionate sparks flying as in Maple Stand. Mittman's deft handling of the interesting side characters that populate her village, as well as her deadly accurate way of portraying children, also beg comparisons with Montgomery.

Also like Montgomery, Mittman's fiction is quaint and enchanting, but not sacchariney. Though she celebrates the past, she does not idealize it, for in this world loved ones die of diphtheria, repressive Victorian sexual mores prevail, and hearts break as they do in any age. Mittman's telling details of nineteenth-century life prove that she has done her historical homework, and will likely please those who need accuracy in their fiction to make the illusion complete.

If Mittman has any flaws as an author, it may be that she's rather homespun and doesn't have the mechanical polish of veteran commercial writers. But for me, it added rather than detracted, and gave The Marriage Bed the quality of a handmade quilt, rather than a machine made one from WalMart. This book has a place on my keeper shelf, and I will look forward to more from Stephanie Mittman.

--Meredith Moore


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