The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

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Love and betrayal are themes that fans of Diane Chamberlain are familiar with, but in The Stolen Marriage she takes both to new heights. Tess DeMello is living the perfect life she planned, complete with an upcoming fairy tale wedding. But as is often the case, plans go awry.

Set to marry her childhood friend, Vincent Russo, who’s planning to be a doctor, she’s a lovable, honest protagonist whom every woman feels empathy toward. As a 23-year-old studying to become a nurse, she is Vincent’s perfect partner. They grew up next door to each other’s close-knit Italian families in Baltimore, Maryland. Tess personifies all that was good and pure in a time when this country faced its biggest crises—war and disease.

Unfolding against the backdrop of World War II and a raging polio epidemic, circumstances tear the two apart. Tess finds herself impatient for Vincent’s return. Doubt and uncertainty creep in the longer they are apart. She agrees to visit Washington, D.C., with her friend, Gina Farinola. While staying at Gina’s aunt’s boardinghouse, the pair meet two businessmen, but only one, Henry Kraft, would play a role in Tess’s future. The young woman makes a bad decision with long-term consequences; her innocence ends abruptly.

Through the narrative, poignant style that Chamberlain masters, the reader is privy to all of Tess’s feelings, thoughts and emotions. “The night before came back to me in a rush and I kept my eyes squeezed tightly closed in regret. What had I done? I’d made love–no, I’d had sex–with a stranger. Oh, to be able to take it all back! The drinking, the allowing him into my room, the kissing, the intimate moments that should never have been given to him.”

Pregnant, Tess breaks off her relationship with Vincent. Few options existed in 1944 for a young woman who conceived out-of-wedlock. But she puts the needs of her unborn child first and confronts Henry, the baby’s father, in his home town of Hickory, North Carolina.

Seeking only financial assistance from him, she is taken aback when Henry suggests they marry instead. “‘I thought about it all night long,’ he interrupted. ‘I don’t want you going off to who-knows-where with my son or daughter. Someday you’d meet and marry another man, and I don’t want that man raising my child. This child’ –he motioned to my belly again–‘is my rightful heir. I can afford to take care of you both. Very well.’ He looked hard at me as if to be sure I understood exactly how well my baby and I would be able to live.”

With trepidation, Tess marries Henry, whose family is well-to-do and well-known in Hickory. At 27, he had been the town’s most eligible bachelor until Tess came along, living with extensive household help, a butter-yellow Cadillac and an estate home two stories tall. Tess is equally overwhelmed by her new life and by her mysterious new husband. Many nights he comes home from his family’s furniture factory late or not at all.

The reader is treated to lively characters such as Henry’s southern mama, Ruth, and his 20-year-old spoiled younger sister, Lucy. Chamberlain’s prose captures the flavor and flair in the speech of the era and of the area. “‘It’s not a group so much as a movement,’ Ruth explained, leaning forward with some enthusiasm. ‘Another woman and I became concerned with what’s happening to the women in our country while their men are away fighting. Wearing slacks. Smoking to excess…’”

In the next five months, Tess tries hard to please Henry and his family but finds herself an outcast with everyone, even the townspeople. Disaster strikes, heartache happens, but strength pulls her through the struggles. Our protagonist finds herself at the vortex of a web of lies ensnaring her husband, but Tess continues to pursue what she feels is just and fair. She unravels the real reason behind Henry’s cold and unloving demeanor toward her, and in the end becomes a better person for it. Tess and Vincent’s paths cross again, and the outcome will leave readers breathless.
Slowly, Chamberlain peels away the outer layer of a family’s deepest, darkest secrets. Money, lies and dangerous liaisons are ripe in small-town America. But Chamberlain also writes about the profound sense of community embodied in the people of Hickory as they pull together to build a polio hospital in just 54 hours.

Chamberlain is best known for romantic, historical fiction; readers will come away with a wealth of information about the polio epidemic that crippled this country. She does her research and builds a believable cast of characters and plot twists around a moment in history. The ending will leave readers melancholy to say goodbye to such strong-willed, enjoyable characters but content that sometimes fairy tales do come true. ■