Laurie Loewenstein’s debut novel reads like the work of an established author. It is the first novel from new publisher, Kaylie JonesBooks, an imprint of Akashic Books. The novel is arranged in three parts and includes a selected bibliography. Unmentionables is a literary historical novel that satisfies everything historical fiction readers crave: entrance into another time and place, emotional vibrancy and intelligent perspective on important historical developments.

Loewenstein transports readers into the year 1917: World War I is raging, and women’s suffrage is gaining momentum. The story unfolds within the span of a year when the lives of Marian, a Chautauqua speaker who warns about the correlations between restrictive women’s underwear and restricted opportunities for women, intersects with widower and town newspaper man, Deuce Garland and his step-daughter, Helen. The convergence of their lives challenges each of them to manifest their reluctant aspirations. 

It was Anaïs Nin who said, “Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” In 1917, a new world was emerging. Loewenstein writes with astute perception of an era struggling with racism and feminism.  Through the lives of Marian, Deuce and Helen, these national struggles play out convincingly.

Marian and Deuce gradually become friends and their relationship evolves as they learn to rely on one another.  Marian inspires Helen to charge forth and join the women’s suffrage movement. This novel is equally plot-driven and character driven. Brief interludes of romance deepen character and plot development. Loewenstein expertly provides enough conflict to keep the story moving along at an engaging pace. Her use of contrast (small town—big city, small town America—small town bombed out France) delivers moments of poetic insight.

Though there are three main characters to follow through this nuanced novel, every character is carefully wrought with details so that there are no stereotyped, flat characters. Loewensteins’ vividly populated scenes, whether in small-town Emporia, Illinois, war-ravaged France, or congested Chicago, offers readers a connection to the people of the past that is relevant.  Themes focus on community, purpose, and the intimacy of meeting someone who really knows us, and these themes emotionally drive the story to a satisfying conclusion.  

If you are not familiar with the major players in women's suffrage, such as Alice Paul, you might not catch the historical references. Loewenstein does not digress into history lessons; therefore, encouraging readers to research  one of America's most dynamic periods of development.

Readers who enjoy contemporary historical novels, such as Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress, or classics such as Marilynne Robinson’s  Housekeeping, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s What Diantha Did, will find immense enjoyment in Loewenstein’s work. 

I can’t leave this review without mentioning that I feel a tremendous affection for this novel. The characters, every single one, hit an emotional nerve and I became involved with them, rooting for them during their setbacks and elated for them during their successes; two in particular made me furious. If you read a novel to be entertained, Unmentionables will do that; if you are drawn to novels that bring the past and its people to life, Unmentionables is unforgettable. 

To learn more about Laurie Loewenstein, visit her author page on Facebook.

April 21, 2014

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