The Mill River Recluse / Darcie Chan. 2011

Back in December, I read this post on The Passive Voice blog about how this self-published ebook became a best-seller. Author Darcie Chan had attempted to get this book published for years, but no one wanted it. And so one day, after reading about the success authors were having with self-publishing, she decided to do it herself. I believe it's been available since last spring. The full story of how she did it is worth reading. By the time the end of the year rolled around she'd sold over 400,000 copies, most of them at $0.99 each. I was impressed with Chan's rise to the best-seller ranks. I was also intrigued by the synopsis of her book: a wealthy, reclusive widow leaves her fortune to the people of the small town where she lived. I figured that for 99 cents I wouldn't be taking much of a risk and I bought it.

So let me just say flat out that I ended up loving this book. It's not a romance, although there is a small romantic subplot. But I think this book would appeal to romance fans in general. I also think it would translate very well into a movie. I hope that happens some day.

Mary Hayes is a beautiful, but very shy young woman living with her father on their small horse farm in rural Vermont. It's the eve of WWII and she catches the eye of Patrick McAllister, heir to a nearby marbleworks and thus part of a wealthy family. He charms her and persuades her to marry him. Only Patrick turns out to be abusive and controlling; their marriage ends tragically as Mary is left widowed and traumatized to the extent that she retreats to her home overlooking the small town of Mill River and rarely emerges over the next 60 years.

The book actually opens in the modern day and Mary is on her deathbed. She is attended by her only and life-long friend, Father Michael, the Catholic priest who has helped care for her since the death of her husband. But Chan, through a series of flashbacks that alternate with the present day, takes us back over Mary's life and the circumstances that caused her to have severe social anxiety disorder. As the timelines converge, though, we begin to see that even though Mary hid from the world, she was very aware of what was going on around her. Ultimately, the book is a celebration of her love for the people of Mill River. During the parts of the book that deal with the present, we get to know some of the town's residents, who have no idea that Mary has been watching over them, and loving them, all of these years. I found it very emotional when all was revealed at the end of the book (i.e. I cried).

I enjoyed most of the characters from the present day. But I especially loved Father Michael who sacrifices a more prestigious career in the Church to stay in Mill River specifically to be Mary's friend and link to the outside world. Father Michael has an interesting little habit that makes him very human. Mary is the only one who knows about it. I enjoyed their friendship and the patience and compassion Father Michael had for Mary's condition.

Even though Mary's life might be viewed as tragic, I saw her living her life as best she could, with a positive, generous spirit. I loved the uplifting nature of the book and the happy, triumphant ending of Mary's life. Yeah, I definitely got my money's worth from this one!


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