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June 8, 2016 by kitmoss


By Brandy Purdy

Publisher:  Kensington (January 26, 2016)




In her enthralling, richly imagined new novel, Brandy Purdy, author of The Ripper’s Wife, creates a compelling portrait of the real, complex woman behind an unthinkable crime.

Lizzie Borden should be one of the most fortunate young women in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her wealthy father could easily afford to provide his daughters with fashionable clothes, travel, and a rich, cultured life. Instead, haunted by the ghost of childhood poverty, he forces Lizzie and her sister, Emma, to live frugally, denying them the simplest modern conveniences. Suitors and socializing are discouraged, as her father views all gentleman callers as fortune hunters.

Lonely and deeply unhappy, Lizzie stifles her frustration, dreaming of the freedom that will come with her eventual inheritance. But soon, even that chance of future independence seems about to be ripped away. And on a stifling August day in 1892, Lizzie’s long-simmering anger finally explodes…

Vividly written and thought-provoking, The Secrets of Lizzie Borden explores the fascinating events behind a crime that continues to grip the public imagination—a story of how thwarted desires and desperate rage could turn a dutiful daughter into a notorious killer.

REVIEW by Christopher Hawthorne Moss

There are certain things you can count on when you pick up a Brandy Purdy book.  One is that you will get a very well-written and often provocative story straight from history.  You can count on a unique perspective on known facts.  And you will get clothes, lots and lots of exquisitely described fabrics and styles.  Lizzie Borden has been one of Purdy’s aims in her writing life, and readers will not be disappointed with how Purdy captured the notorious murderer.  You know the rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

But, did she do it?  And why?  And how came it that she was ruled innocent?

Purdy’s particular talent is the story told in first person.  It is a rare gift to use this style of storytelling with her skill at making the woman (or in the case of her first novels, THE CONFESSION OF PIERS GAVESTON) show just how unreliable a storyteller any individual can be.  Telling the story of the double murder from the point of view of Lizzie Borden, you discover how imperfect the record can be.  Yes, she admits to the killing, and even tells the story in as fractured a way as she is likely to, but she paints Lizzie as the vapid, bitter woman she undoubtedly was.  Even Purdy’s penchant for describing the clothing, in my opinion, ad nauseum helps convey the impression that Lizzie is every bit as shallow and greedy as she must have been.  One fact stands out for me: Lizzie’s description of her father is of a money-grubbing selfish old goat, yet he sent her to Europe at his own expense.  Not that the twenty-seven-year-old Lizzie need have showered the man with gratitude, but she seems unaware that a true miser would not have done such a thing.

A character in this story not included with the humans—Lizzie, her sister, her father, her stepmother and the Irish maid—is the house they live in.  Even when I saw this historical tale as a documentary, it was clear the house had as much blame attaching to it for the family dysfunction as did Lizzie herself.  It was a very old and odd house.  It had no running water or bath facilities, no toilets, and the rooms were not properly heated, and this is during a time when having these conveniences was not unusual. The intimacy of having to walk through one person’s bedroom into another without connecting hallways is hard to imagine now.  It would be hard to understand how Lizzie would not have gone a little mad in this setting.

The era in which this story took place has its own role to play, as the fact that Lizzie was not convicted shows what happens when an all-male jury sits in judgment on a fine, upstanding middle-class Yankee lady.  How could she have done such a terrible thing?  Surely there must have been some undesirable, some ignorant dirty, smelly immigrant more likely to have killed the two parents!

But this novel is not just about the murders and what led to them.  It covers almost the entirety of Lizzie’s life, from a small child to her death. It includes how her notoriety affected her love life; not only the sad tale of her aborted engagement but her more notorious love affair with the lesbian actress Nance O’Neill.  I had heard before that Borden was a lesbian, which is why this review is included on this blog, and how Lizzie retells her story is as natural and unabashed as any isolated young woman’s might be.

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