In Name Only, by Ellen Gable


As Ellen Gable launched the O’Donovan family series, she proved her skill as a devious plot-weaver, maintaining relentless suspense throughout this romance novel. Her attention to the details of daily life recreated the beauty and ugliness of the Philadelphia suburbs, circa 1876. Her festive tour of the Centennial Exposition shared the sights, sounds, tastes and smells; the art, industry and its message of progress and expectancy. Although these times could justly boast of the industrial revolution, by today’s standards they seemed beset by all too frequent misfortunes and limited relief. The author spared none of the gritty, earthy, details of life in the 1870s.These trials challenged the hearts of her characters, forcing them to seek either meaning in, or escape from their ever present misfortunes.

The protagonist, Caroline Martin, seen on the book cover in her mourning attire, knew poverty. After her father’s death she expected to survive as a domestic servant. When her wealthy Germantown relatives reached out to her, allowing her to “pass for rich,” she never lost her sympathy for the poor. Ascendency to the upper class had its price. Beneath her black dress she endured a chafing corset required by her new status, a garment that bound both body and spirit. She stepped into a world that fed on scandal. Its denizens lived to bring down anyone who might deviate from their rigid customs and expectations. Caroline feared the exposure of her past and the potential for humiliation and ostracism.

Her new neighbors in the O’Donovan family seemed to offer security but the disreputable David O’Donovan, a drunk, a gambler and a philanderer soon detected Caroline’s secret. While upper-class social strictures bound Caroline to meet society’s expectations, men like David and his father before him, indulged in infidelity while regarding their wives with a “patronizing tone, as if all women were dolts and possessed no intelligence whatsoever.” Caroline despised David for what he was and the threat he represented.

Caroline’s eventual marriage compounded tragedies in her neighborhood that challenged her faith. Weaknesses and strengths collided as happiness seemed to drain away. In Name Only raised issues that have tested humans from the beginning and continue in the present age. The author focused on the dilemma of suffering in the context of marriage, offering in the O’Donovan family series, readings worthy of discussion by young women and men contemplating a loving and an enduring marriage. I look forward to the sequels in the O’Donovan saga and recommend the series to all romantics.



A Subtle Grace, by Ellen Gable

A Subtle Grace front cover Nov2013



Kathleen O’Donovan gazed out her bedroom window, wondering if at the ripe old age of nineteen, she was doomed to spinsterhood, but soon she found herself the center of attraction, not all of it welcome. A Subtle Grace (O’Donovan Family #2) set in the late 1890s, is much more than a romance. The pen of Charles Dickens might have described the treatment of women, the poor and minorities by the villains of the day, villains not unlike those featured in modern tabloids. Gray’s Anatomy—not the TV series but the medical text—could serve as a reader’s companion as the story weaves through episodes with midwives and country doctors practicing their trades. The words from Colossians, “Wives be submissive to your husbands,” were interpreted in this novel by either a loving husband or a domineering rogue, with decidedly different outcomes.

A Subtle Grace shares the full human dimension of those “elegant” times, casting a new light on the once opulent mansions that remain in our older neighborhoods. The O’Donovan family projected affection, joy, warmth, concern, strength and harmony—in a word, love. As members of the upper-class, David, Caroline, their children and servants lived comfortably in Germantown, Pennsylvania, radiating an inviting grandness. The dialogue and formal behavior fit perfectly with the architecture of the times. The children’s respect for the authority of the parents, however, seemed unfortunately out of joint with today’s society—unfortunate that is, for today’s society.

Subtle hints of scandal trickled through the early chapters leading to a flood of unseemly behavior, discrimination, class-distinctions that mud-slide the plot down a darkening path toward suspense and terror, including depictions of violence. In stark contrast, the religious dimension stood against the sinister tide. Enthusiasm for the liturgy, conversions, the joy of confession, prayers, vocation to the priesthood were strong and unambiguous, and fit well with the story.

Even with such a large family and supporting characters, the author carefully developed each with his or her own conflicts, and loss ridden sub-plots, weaving through the other strands. The author supported the notion that happiness comes through discipline and respect, an ideal that deserves a greater attention in Catholic writing. For instance, I liked the choice of the name “David” for “Papa.” Like King David, his willingness to change his life, confess his sins to his children and church officials show him a strong and loving man. His tender love for his wife and his tough love for his sons show his depth of character.

I enjoyed reading A Subtle Grace and look forward to reading its prequel: In Name Only. I could see a TV series coming from these and future O’Donovan Family novels. Congratulations to Ellen Gable.
Gable, Ellen, A Subtle Grace. Pakenham, Ontario: Full Quiver Publishing. 2014.