Karen Kelly has produced a haunting story of three generations of two families which, in the end, is truly heart-warming. I was invited to read and review the pre-publication galley of Bethlehem by her publisher, St. Martin’s Press. This is the first book by Ms. Kelly’s I have read, and I’ll be sure to read more of her work.

Joanna Rafferty Collier moves with her husband, Frank,  into his family’s mansion in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and is immediately struck by how standoffish his enigmatic mother and grandmother seem toward her. She has no idea of the painful secrets held by this family very wealthy high-society family.

The saga of the Colliers, and their closest friends, the Parrishes, is set the 1960s. The tragedies and secrets are revealed in flashbacks to the 1920s, when Frank’s parents were children and teenagers. The Colliers had immigrated from Germany during World War I. Hollins Parrish, then at the helm of Bethlehem Steel made sure his newly hired chief engineer, Charles Collier, was made welcome. Soon, the two families, adults and children alike, became inseparable.

There are endearing characters, and those who seem not to be, but actually are grief-stricken, as well as a sweet, almost dream-like caretaker of the local cemetery who makes occasional allusions to the presence of ghosts.

This is a beautiful story that reminds us of the misunderstandings caused to one generation by secrets held by previous generations. Family secrets are usually kept with the best of intentions, but almost always cause pain and confusion.

What Makes This Reviewer Grumpy?

It is extremely rare for me to need a dictionary when reading a novel, but Bethlehem had 18 words I highlighted to look up later. I often use a thesaurus when I want more then the usual, over-used words, but this was a bit much. Was the author trying to show off an above average vocabulary? Who knows? Trying to make her readers feel somehow less than?  Not likely. What I do know is this: books are more enjoyable when the reader does not need to keep a dictionary handy while reading. Aside from that, the usual annoying mistakes:

  • Incorrect verb usage: saying “brought” in place of “took” and “bringing” in place of “taking”;
  • consistently beginning sentences with conjunctions such as “and” and “but”;
  • multiple split infinitives;
  • multiple misplacement of the word “only” within sentences;
  • a few missing commas.

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