Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Book Review: The Black Velvet Coat

By Jami Deise

A few years ago, at the recommendation of several readers and writers whom I know through Chick Lit Central, I picked up a copy of Sarah Jio’s Blackberry Winter, even though I was not a fan of historical fiction. After reading that book, I became one – or, at least a fan of a very specific type of historical fiction, a book that links a mystery from the past to a heroine in the present. Jill G. Hall’s fiction debut, The Black Velvet Coat, follows this format, and is a satisfying – although not problem-free – addition to the genre.

In present day San Francisco, struggling artist Anne McFarland buys a black velvet coat from a thrift store and is surprised to find a key and a snowflake pin in its pockets. Touching the key gives her a mystical sense and occasional visions. Going through a fifty-year-old magazine one day, Anne is shocked to see her coat on the shoulders of glamorous young heiress Sylvia Van Dam. The photo shows Sylvia leaving her engagement party with her fiancé Ricardo. Anne is intrigued enough to use the photo in one of her art pieces, and she begins a quest to find out everything she can about the woman, who disappeared shortly after the photo was taken. Sylvia, where are you, she writes on her piece.

In 1963, Sylvia had been a flighty young woman, orphaned at 13 and left a fortune that was overseen by her guardian, Paul, a dashing man not much older than she. But Sylvia doesn’t appreciate Paul, instead seeing him as someone constantly trying to squelch her shopping habit. Rather, she’s drawn to the mysterious dark Ricardo, even though she’s warned again and again of his dangerous reputation and the trouble he left behind in Mexico.

As Anne tries to find out exactly what happened to Sylvia, Sylvia begins to realize she was wrong not to listen to the warnings about Ricardo. But now it might be too late.

Anne and Sylvia are two very different women. While Sylvia is spoiled and foolish, Anne is filled with self-doubt. Sylvia’s early, flighty behavior make her a difficult character to root for in the beginning. And while she does learn from her mistakes, she is rescued more often than she rescues herself. Anne makes a few foolish choices as well, but as they are centered around her art career, they are easier to forgive.

As Anne’s art career and personal circumstances take up a lot of the book, she doesn’t spend as much time exploring the Sylvia mystery as heroines in similar books do. And there’s a bit of a psychic connection with the key, which gives Anne a short cut when it comes to research on Sylvia. There’s also a bit of mysticism in Sylvia’s story line as well. Personally, I felt Hall should either have gone all in with the supernatural element, or left it out completely. The small amount she does include feels like a cheat for her characters.

However, I found the ending to be completely satisfying – more than other books in the genre, which often leave readers wistful.

Despite its weak spots, The Black Velvet Coat is a fine debut, and I look forward to seeing more from author Jill G. Hall and the book’s publisher, She Writes Press.

Thanks to BookSparks for the book in exchange for an honest review. This is part of their 2015 Fall Reading Challenge.