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.