It is 1901. Queen Victoria is dead; a new era has begun. And on a cold April morning a young girl stands uncertainly on Liverpool Docks ready to board an emigrant ship that will take her to America and an unknown future. Michael, Luke, and Meg are amongst her fellow travellers, with the common bond that only determination and self-belief will sustain them in their new lives.
Set in the vibrancy of early twentieth century New York, the story follows Clara and the people she meets on the way, through tenement living and sweatshop labour to success in musical theatre.
But she discovers that she needs more than wealth and security to make her happy; when the past returns, she makes another choice which changes her life. Then, as the horror of World War One in Europe threatens to engulf America, Clara learns that personal lives cannot be lived apart from public events, and finds that the people she has loved, and who love her, are not always what they seem.
I have a small confession to make. When an author writes to me asking me to review their book (especially when it’s their first book, and it’s only available as an e-book, and often self published) I’m sometimes a little half-hearted about it. My expectations are generally much lower than when something comes via a publisher, and I’ll very often say no. Unless something makes about the description piques my interest, and that was the case with Annie Thomas’ first novel A Woman’s Choice. And I have to say that – whatever instinct made me say yes to this one – this book was a really lovely read that I wouldn’t have missed for the world and which I’d highly recommend to all.
On the first page we’re introduced to twelve year old Clara Foley – vividly drawn – as she embarks a ship at Liverpool docks together with her ailing mother Jenny, facing a long journey as steerage passengers bound for a new life in America. Once on board, her mother is taken under the wing of the wonderful Bertha Ramsay, allowing Clara to find a corner of the deck that she can call her own, and where she first meets Luke Rutherford and Michael O’Halloran, both of whom will be major figures in her future life. Luke has dreams of working for the Detroit Automobile Company, if he’s ever able to escape the clutches of his father. Michael – a vibrant character in both childhood and adulthood – is travelling with his large family, and you just know that his skills in ducking and diving will see him making a success of his new life.
Once ashore, the story really takes off. We see Clara… but no, I mustn’t tell you the story, other than that the story moves through the sweatshops in New York’s Jewish quarter, through Tin Pan Alley, the birth of the car industry through the trials, tribulations, injustices and prejudices of World War One. And through it all, we have the wonderful character driven story of Clara, who makes a series of engrossing choices that shape her life.
I loved this book: I read the last two-thirds on a rainy afternoon in front of the fire and escaped totally into early 20thcentury New York, replete with all its sounds, tastes and smells. The book has a wonderful filmic quality – you can almost hear the director shouting “action”, as the camera pans round the current scene, and the characters appear and catch your eye. It’s a story that sweeps you along, caring deeply for Clara and the myriad characters that pass through her life. There are moments of immense joy and great sadness, and the backdrop is vividly drawn and meticulously detailed. It’s a long time since I read any of the sagas of my youth, but this book really brought to mind the early books of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Lesley Pearse. Yes, it’s that good! Annie says that she reads to escape – if you enjoy reading for the same reason, then you’re going to just love this one.
I’m delighted that the author, Annie Thomas, agreed to be interviewed for the blog, to tell us all a bit more about her and her lovely book.
Annie, this is a wonderful story – where did it come from?
I wanted to write a novel that would appeal to intelligent women who wanted some escapism in their reading mix. A good pick up after a hard day, or a book to relax with and still feel that you have gained something.
I knew it would be a historical novel, as I have always been fascinated by how people’s lives are affected by the time they live in. And I knew I wanted to have a strong female central character, and see her grow from childhood to maturity. I wanted to her to struggle against adversity, and come through – but not without loss and pain, or it wouldn’t be real.
It’s difficult to believe this is a first novel – how did you start writing?
I first started writing ‘A Woman’s Choice’ over 20 years ago, then put it aside.
I’ve always loved reading. As a child I became completely absorbed in stories, and read voraciously. I wondered if I had it in me to write a novel, and then one day, I started to scribble a story outline.
After more than 2 years of research and writing, and nearing the end of the first draft in the early 1990’s, our son was born. Full time work combined with family life meant that the writing stopped.
From time to time I would get the manuscript out and look at it, make a few changes, and then put it away again. Having started to write in longhand, I did have the foresight, at one point, to make sure that I updated the format as technology changed, so that 18 months ago, when our son left home to go to University, it was possible to bring it up on the screen, and read it again.
To my surprise it still felt fresh, but more importantly I could see what needed to be done to it and how it should end. I really enjoyed the redrafting, and the writing process absorbed me again as it had over 20 years ago.
The lives of US immigrants, musical theatre and Tin Pan Alley, the growth of the car industry, the prejudices in America around the time of the First World War – the detail is totally convincing. How did you tackle the research?
I started ‘A Woman’s Choice’ long before the days of the web, so the first step was to find as many books as I could on early 20th century America: the social and cultural history, the lives of emigrants from Europe, finding old photographs of New York to help me imagine what Clara would have seen.
I have always had access to good libraries, which meant l could find lots of source material. The research helped the story – gave me ideas for the plot and ways to make it feel real.
A single sentence in a book about New York, for example, not important at all in its context, told me that at that time sheep still grazed in Central Park. I knew at once that Clara and her mother would have gone there because it reminded them of home.
It was important to me that Clara left England at the end of Victoria’s reign, because this symbolised the beginning of a new era.
As she arrived in America as a young girl of 12, by the beginning of the First World War in Europe she was an adult. I had no idea what the impact of the conflict was in America, and it was shocking to read of the anti-German prejudice against emigrant families who had settled there. But that research led me to creating a sub-plot within the novel.
By the time I returned to finish the book, I was using the web, and finding new sources of images and contemporaneous reporting which weren’t available to me before. I think that helped to enrich some of the detail, but the essential material was gleaned from reading serious social history and extracting what I needed.
You talk – on your excellent website – about the black and white movies you used to watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I have my enduring favourites – what were yours?
Three films immediately stand out – all starring Bette Davies – ‘Now Voyager’, ‘All About Eve’, and ‘Mr Skeffington’. ‘Now Voyager’ can still move me to tears, and I am sure that my Margot in ‘A Woman’s Choice’ has more than a hint of Margot Channing! What they all have in common are strong stories, strong women, and strong values. There is also a deeply romantic thread in the best sense of the word, but that’s not what is most important about them.
I also enjoy almost everything John Mills made – especially ‘Ice Cold in Alex’. Somehow his screen persona of honesty, courage and personal integrity always stands out. Many years ago, I was lucky enough to see him and his wife, Mary Hayley Bell in a hotel lobby. I didn’t want to intrude on their holiday, but I sent up a note to his hotel room telling him how much pleasure his films had brought me.
In many ways, James Stewart epitomises for me an American version of John Mills; I love all his films, but ‘A Wonderful Life’ is (probably) my favourite. It has a fairy tale quality: the struggle between good and evil, with good winning through.
And I have just remembered ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ with Gregory Peck, very different and much harder edged – a moral code and a man prepared to stand against his community for what is right.
I love the sound of your home – the 19th century converted pub. Is it as idyllic as it sounds?
Well, old houses take an enormous amount of looking after and just at the moment it has a small leak in the roof after all the rain, so idyllic isn’t quite the word! But it was a restoration project for us when we bought it over 30 years ago, and it still has the wooden paneling of the public bar, and cellars full of bread ovens and bats! Tolkein and C.S. Lewis stopped here for a beer on one of their walks, but they did a lot of walking and no doubt had many refreshment breaks…
Your writing calls to mind a lot of my favourite authors. What do you like to read?
An eclectic mix: different writers and genres for different moods and energy levels.
I enjoy non-fiction enormously – biography and 20th century diaries kept by those with access to wealth and power give a fascinating insight into how society works, and are terrific for period detail.
I read fiction all the time – P D James and Susan Hill for crime mysteries – and I have recently discovered the wonderful series about Commissario Guido Brunetti by Donna Leon – weaving family life, the beauty of Venice, and crime into an engaging mix.
For historical fiction I enjoy Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Elizabeth Chadwick, Tracy Chevalier and Kate Mosse – all very different writers but superb story tellers. I loved Anya Seton, Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer when I was younger but haven’t read them for years and am about to re-read Seton’s Katharine. I enjoyed reading Kate Morton when on a sunlounger in the summer!
And please tell me there’s another book on the way…
I have started to plan another novel, but there is a long way to go. I have an outline in my head of what I want to write, but it’s at the research stage, so I suspect that the story will evolve as I read.
Thank you Annie for answering my questions so superbly – it’s been lovely getting to know you a little better. A Woman’s Choice is available for Kindle and all devices that can use the Kindle app, at the price of £2.99 at the time of writing. For more information on Annie and her books, do please have a look at her website where you’ll also find a very atmospheric video trailer – then get hold of the book.