BookBrowse Reviews The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino

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The Parting Glass

by Gina Marie Guadagnino

The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino X
The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2020, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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A story of overlapping love triangles set in 19th century New York City.

It is 1837 and Mary Ballard has recently come to America from Ireland and entered the employ of Charlotte Walden, one of New York City's most desired eligible young ladies. Mary came over with her twin brother Seanin, and both siblings disguise their heritage amid the rampant anti-Irish sentiment of the times. Being a lady's maid is a step up for Mary, but she begins to find the position untenable when her mistress enters into an illicit affair with Seanin who works in the estate's stables. The problem is that Mary, herself, is in love with Charlotte and cannot bear to see her with someone else. The situation is further complicated by Seanin's involvement with the Order, a secret society of Irishmen in a gang war with New York's nativists (see Beyond the Book). When Seanin decides to ask Charlotte to run away with him, Mary must decide where her loyalties lie.

The Parting Glass explores at length what it's like to fall in love with the wrong person and how such an attraction can derail someone's entire life. Mary's feelings for Charlotte (depicted eloquently and vividly: "a dull, throbbing ache in my gut") are not just forbidden because they are both women, they are also of profoundly different stations at a time when this was a virtually uncrossable chasm. But this makes it all the more frustrating for Mary when Charlotte chooses Seanin. How could Charlotte leave her wealth and status behind for the lowly son of a stableman, Mary wonders, and why him and not me? Charlotte is a frustratingly thin character, the reader is given absolutely no hint as to why Mary feels so strongly about her, but perhaps that is in keeping with the novel's grand theme of inexplicable love. Sometimes there is no justifying one's choices when it comes to passion.

Guadagnino is much more effective and specific in depicting the unwavering bond between Seanin and Mary. As their pasts are revealed slowly over the course of the novel, the reader sees how Seanin has stuck by his sister when it cost him everything. He is sympathetic to Mary's feelings about Charlotte, even while he does not truly understand them (any more than the reader does).

Mary's unrequited love provides the impetus for one of my favorite opening lines in recent memory: "It was Thursday again, and once more I was courting misery with both arms open." Despairing over Charlotte's affair with her brother, Mary drowns her sorrows at the local tavern. This is where she meets one of the novel's wonderful side characters, Liddie Lawrence, a prostitute who claims to be the daughter of a famous Shakespearean actor. Mary quickly begins an affair with her. Meanwhile, Charlotte's cousin and confidant, the heiress Prudence Graham, is much more interesting than Charlotte herself. Mary notes the tragedy that is Prudence's lost potential, as she must frequently downplay her talents and intelligence in order to be more pleasing to men as she seeks a husband. Mary explains that Prudence possesses "those unfeminine qualities—education and ambition—which no marriageable young lady of good family would think to betray."

There are plenty of historical details that will satisfy fans of the upstairs/downstairs genre. In particular, each chapter is introduced with a quotation from an instruction manual titled Duties of a Lady's Maid. These include charming pieces of advice like, "Desire nothing but what is within your reach; for if your desires are unreasonable you may be certain of disappointment." There are also multiple references to New York's Tammany Hall political conglomerate and a fictionalized version of the Irish gangs prevalent in the city in the mid 19th century.

Guadagnino's careful plotting is very engaging, but marred slightly by a rather abrupt ending. Nevertheless, The Parting Glass provides intrigue and ardor against a vivid backdrop of 19th century New York, with a charismatic and memorable cast of characters.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2019, and has been updated for the May 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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