Despite being set in 1850's New York City, Megan Chance's novel The Spiritualist has a delicious gothic atmosphere that draws the reader in right from the beginning and doesn't let go until the very satisfying end. Evelyn Atherton, the intelligent daughter of a New York detective, shocks society by marrying into The Ten, one of the Knickerbocker families that dominate New York society, with her marriage to handsome lawyer Peter Atherton. But the marriage soon proves disappointing. Peter is away from home a lot both for business, he tells Evie, and in pursuit of his fascination with spiritualism.
Spiritualism was a popular Victorian-era pastime among New York Society and the most fashionable social events often featured mediums and mesmerists who acquired a celebrity status and were much coveted by fashionable people. Michel Jourdain was one of these, a dashingly handsome Creole medium/mesmerist he was quickly “acquired” by Dorothy Bennett, one of society's grande dames, who was famous for her “circles” starring her pet medium. Evie, desperate to understand her distant husband, attends a circle with him one night and the story takes off from there. A bullet is fired, chaos ensues, and Peter sends Evie home assuring her he will get to the bottom of this. What he gets to the bottom of is the river, stripped of his jewelry and stabbed many times.
The Atherton family promptly descends on Evie, has her arrested for her husband's murder, and gets her out of the family home which they intend to reclaim along with Peter's very significant inheritance. Evie, after a wretched stay in The Tombs, is given refuge by Dorothy Bennett where she intends to spy on Michel, who, Peter's law partner Benjamin assures her, is a mountebank and most likely Peter's murder. Evie is caught in an increasingly complicated web in the rarefied air of the mansion belonging to elderly, ailing Mrs. Bennett who is, quite obviously, in love with Michel -- whom she plans to adopt.
I have to say I was as bad as Dorothy and Evie – I fell under Michel's spell, too, and was absolutely mesmerized (pun intended) by this sexy, dark, mysterious mesmerist. The entire story of Evie's attempts to find the truth about her husband's murder and unravel the complicated and perverse relationships of the society into which she married is told with both elegance and grit. The gothic settings – from spiritualist circles in Upper East Side mansions to the seedy, dark back alleys of the forbidden parts of the city – lend an atmosphere of evil and perversity that had me enthralled.
I had previously read and loved Ms. Chance's novels Susannah Morrow and An Inconvenient Wife and loved both of them so I'm pleased to say The Spiritualist is every bit as delicious. The characters are well-developed, the language lovely. and the plot filled with twists and turns. Plus Michele Jourdain is just plain hot. His seduction of Evie is both diabolical and erotic – and ultimately completely tantalizing. Loved the book and highly recommend it.
Thanks for reading.