Susan Wiggs has crafted another winning Americana romance, thus solidifying her reputation as one of the best authors using American settings for her stories. Halfway to Heaven takes place in Washington, DC, during the Gilded Age - the late 19th century. The heroine is the daughter of a powerful senator; the hero is a freshman congressman. The often corrupt politics of the era, when personal interests and money rather than the national interest, serve as a backdrop to the tale.
The heroine, Abigail Cabot, is uncomfortable and unhappy in the capital’s social whirl. Always compared unfavorably with her gorgeous sister Helena, Abigail has no sense of style and a reputation for clumsiness, the result of her deformed foot - which she has kept secret. Abigail has a brilliant mind which she has devoted to the study of astronomy. However, her scholarly interests simply serve to highlight her difference from the other ladies of Washington.
Jamie Calhoun is the son of a prominent horse breeder from Virginia. (There is a tenuous connection with Wiggs’ book, The Horsemaster’s Daughter. Jamie is the nephew of the hero of that book.) His election to Congress results from his social position and he might be expected to support the interests of the region’s upper crust. Instead, he has a different agenda - to protect the small farmers of his district from a predatory railroad company. But to achieve his goal, he needs political allies.
Abigail and Jamie meet at a society wedding when she accidentally sees him embracing the President’s widowed sister-in-law and he rescues her from one of her “clumsy moments.” He sees befriending Senator Cabot’s unprepossessing daughter as a political stratagem, especially when he discovers that she suffers an unrequited love for the vice-president’s son, Lieutenant Boyd Butler of the United States Navy. Butler, like most of Washington’s eligible bachelors, is enamored of the beauteous Helena. Jamie sets out to help Abigail win her heart’s desire.
Wiggs has explicitly created a Pygmalion tale. Jamie molds a new and beautiful Abigail, unlocking her hidden attractiveness and instructing her in the social niceties like dancing and riding. Abigail finds her mentor in turns annoying and fascinating. In particular, she
appreciates his support of her passion for studying the heavens. And when he decides she must learn how to respond to a man, she is a willing pupil. Jamie may have begun the project of transforming Abigail for crass political motives, but the more he gets to know this brilliant and unusual woman, the more confused about his own feelings he becomes.
Jamie is a “tortured” hero. A horrible experience in his past has both left him with a sense of guilt and unworthiness and led him to distrust and reject the idea of love. Hence, he convinces himself that the best thing he can do is to make sure that Abigail gets her heart’s desire. Abigail has “loved” Butler for so long that, when it appears that she
will win him, she ignores her own doubts.
Wiggs, as always, creates characters, both primary and secondary, whose actions make emotional sense. Both Abigail and her sister have a problematic relationship with their powerful father who, in the absence of their mother, has had a profound influence on their lives. Helena is a particularly compelling character. She has beauty, but she has ceded wisdom to her sister. Thus, despite her looks, she is as insecure as Abigail, as her doomed romance with their intellectual neighbor demonstrates. Wiggs promises us Helena’s story in her next book, and I am looking forward to it.
Halfway to Heaven is vintage Wiggs. It has complex characters, an enjoyable romance, and it offers its readers an entry into a different world and a different time. I recommend it without reservation.