A Review of Susan Elia MacNeal’s ‘91 Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

Originally posted at Wellesley Underground here.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s New York Times-bestselling Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante from the Maggie Hope mystery series: this is why we read novels. This is why people read mysteries, in particular.

In this novel, the fifth in the Maggie Hope mystery series, MacNeal seems to airlift you out of the twenty-first century and submerge you deep into the early 1940’s with her masterful writing. The novel immediately hooks you in by constructing an ambiance with deft, concise descriptions that tend to all of your senses. You are immersed in a world vital not only with visual details that create a richly-woven environment which you now inhabit, but you can also smell the Chinese food, taste the cocktails, and hear the dialects roll off the characters’ tongues. As you read the novel, jazz music will bellow in your ears. And you will participate in the story, laughing at some of the hilarious levity that infiltrates the serious tones defining the novel (one memorable moment is when a character states that the British Empire’s colonialism was due to the Brits being hungry for more appealing food). The players in the novel, whose characters and appearances are captured in just a few expert sentences each, earn your trust in their authenticity and naturalism.

Early in the book, you glean the opportunity to experience, a little, of 1940’s America and its contrast to Britain, deeply entrenched in its World War II efforts. With Maggie, you exhilarate in the city-lights and lack of black-outs that characterize London.

However, as the book progresses, MacNeal introduces parallels that remind us our current era is not so dissociated from World War II. At the end of World War II, the resounding message was “Never Again.” Yet we are still fighting a war against racism, surveillance and privacy issues, violence, and fascism. People all over the world still perish due to their ethnicity, religion, or race. And nations still invade other countries which results in casualties, soldiers pitted against each other in senseless power-struggles. Central to the novel is an epic plea for peace, where Gandhi is lauded as the true war hero of the Second World War for abstaining from violence. At the crux of the novel is a challenge, not just against the Nazi party’s atrocities and imperialism, but against other violence against human beings, such as the death penalty which dooms a young innocent African American to death, serving as a central plot point. The book reminds us of Jim Crow and of poll taxes that prevented the impoverished from their right to vote. It stimulates us to think about the state of democracy in the United States, then and now. The themes of Mrs Roosevelt’s Confidante include all wars threatening human freedom, dignity, and democracy.  Other motifs discuss colonialism and the wastefulness of losing life over different political views.

The novel interlaces an intriguing page-turning plot with social themes relevant to today with poignant inspirational messages. I interviewed MacNeal earlier, and she wrote that she writes to entertain people. However, I find this a modest statement. Yes, the intricate plot, the able-fighting Maggie, both intellectually and physically, the romance, and the surprises are entertaining, but I find, more than being amused, the novel is transforming.

And that’s why I read. I read to be changed, to leave a book, like exiting a foreign country, with a novel perspective. In Mrs Roosevelt’s Confidante, you realize the power of words either to unite or to divide as Prime Minister Churchill addresses the Senate. The novel’s characters’ courage inspires you to search deep in your recesses to discover your own. You consider what you would risk for your and others’ freedom and privacy. You learn that most worthy goals in life require perseverance to obtain, such as mathematical or code-breaking prowess, as Maggie possesses. And Eleanor Roosevelt instructs you that not everyone will approve of you, a pertinent lesson in our age of Internet bullies, and that only you have the power to deprive yourself of your dignity and self-respect. Through reading this book, you realize not to take for granted your precious life and your time with the people who constitute your family and friends: you never know when you will see your loved-ones again.

As a physicist, the only element I would desire to be developed more is the presence of math, logic, and physics that would shape Maggie’s perspective. Would she compare some of her puzzles to unsolved theorems? She grew up in the wake of some of the most revolutionary developments of math and physics to that date, and I would love to see her engage in debates and possess more thoughts aligned with math and physics. Her Aunt Edith, who raised her, possesses a background in chemistry, and the two women’s educations would likely have been very different with the status of science at the turn of twentieth century. I would love to see them support and contest the merits of aspects of quantum mechanics, such as the EPR paradox. I would also love to see Maggie introduce the novel ideas of the special and general relativity, the photoelectric effect, and quantum mechanics to her friends, who might be disbelieving. Had she encountered Lise Meitner or looked up to the late Emmy Noether as a role model?  Perhaps there might be a scenario where she would have to solicit help from Feynman, known for his lock-picking abilities, or Einstein (or consult his papers). However, I must admit I am biased toward more math/science in my reading, and have also not read the other books in the series which might contain these elements.

In my past, I was inundated with World War II books and films, usually from the victims’ perspectives from conquered countries who resist, yet still suffer great traumas. These stories invaded my sleep through nightmares. Maggie Hope, too, enters my dreams, but, well, as an antidote, as an agent of hope. She is someone who solves crimes and who is in a position to oppose the oppressors. She is plucky, intelligent, and courageous. She will entertain you, stimulate thought, and will lead you to tears and laughter. And yes, Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mrs Roosevelt’s Confidante will leave you craving to read all the books in the series and hungry for the next installment.

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