Pub Date: 1995 (this edition, 1999)
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (Harper Collins)
FTC: Purchased used so long ago I can't remember where
Length: 387 pages
This month's TBR Challenge theme was Old School (at least 10 years old), and I had actually read a book in preparation for it. Alas, the reality of having two active boys at home interfered once again and the post never got written. No posts have been written all summer, which is a personal worst for me. But at least I'm still reading. The slump hasn't crept back.
Barbara Michaels holds a special place in my heart. Her books, along with Piers Anthony, were some of the first adult titles I read as a young teen. They were shelved in mystery, but they are actually pretty close to romantic suspense. Some are out and out gothic with all of the creepy little atmospheric touches. She was also Elizabeth Peters, one of my favorite authors of all time, but I have not read a Michaels book in at least 20 years, so revisiting her style under this pseudonym was fun.
The premise of the book is a little unusual and definitely dated for today's reader. The protagonist, Rachel Grant, is a grad student who works for an antique linen business. The mystery surrounds some burglaries and a possibly haunted Civil War era quilt. Yep....highly exciting stuff.
One reason I love Michaels is that her research is pretty careful, so you get a lot of detail about the antique linen and clothing business. It's not info-dumpy, but there is A LOT of it, which can at times drag the story down. There's also her trademark sarcasm, her strong feminist bent, her love triangle (with a twist), and her standard strong women, mostly hapless men dynamic.
The mystery itself is creepy, in that most of the suspense is psychological. Rachel is writing her dissertation on "protective magic" that women throughout the ages imbued in their sewing and needlework. And low and behold, she ends up smack dab in the middle of something with the hallmarks of just that kind of magic. Except this magic isn't benevolent. Rachel begins acting out of character, forgetting things, and you don't know if she's being gaslighted or if she is going mad...or something else. Further complicating matters is that the shop, and the house where she is staying, is the target of repeated break ins. Soon, it's difficult to tell what's real, what's not.
Reading this book, you have to set aside all of the ways access to a cell phone or the internet would solve this mystery in 2 minutes flat. It was written before all of those instant connections were widely available, so it must be read as almost-contemporary, not truly contemporary. Beyond the obvious changes modern tech would make to the story, the main problems with the book lie in the fact that it has too many call backs to previous books (I think I would have gotten more out of certain scenes had I read the book being referenced), and the uneven characterization of several characters. Some appear and disappear from the narrative with no rhyme or reason.
Overall, though, I did enjoy this novel, not the least of which because, honestly, they don't make many books like this anymore. I just don't see a major publishing house buying a book about an evil quilt, let alone buying a nearly 400 page book about it. This is not a cozy. It's a straight up mystery with some gothic, paranormal edges. It's also relatively tame in terms of violence, sex, language etc. I miss these kinds of stories.
My Grade: B-
When an antique bridal quilt appears under mysterious circumstances at the vintage clothing shop where Rachel Grant works, she is fascinated. She has never been able to resist handmade textiles from the past, for she believes that through the ages, women wove protective magic into their fabrics in order to mark the important events of their lives: birth, marriage, and death. But there is more than good in the quilt's magic power. Day by day Rachel sees and feels the power growing, as she senses the quilt influencing her thoughts and actions. Much as Rachel's logical mind longs to deny the supernatural, the aura of evil coming from the quilt is terrifyingly real, and it seems to carry a sinister legacy into the lives of the people Rachel loves.