This novel is set in a very particular American past that many Americans will find familiar, but which may seem more exotic to English readers. After a prologue extracted from the book’s finale, promising that high drama lies ahead, we are introduced to an altogether different type of story, set in 1880s small-town Missouri, where we meet our young heroine, Margaret Mayfield. This world could almost be that of Little Women, which Margaret reads aloud to her family. Margaret is thought unnatural for not crying over Beth’s death, and indeed the tears for another child’s terrible death will come slowly to her – Margaret instead uses detachment to deal with pain, becoming literally ‘beside herself’. This is a tricky characteristic to have in a protagonist, but it is precisely this quality in Margaret that makes plausible her marriage to an ambitious young astronomer, pride of the county, named Andrew Early.
Like Sherlock Holmes, to whom he compares himself, Andrew has an intellect of frightening coldness. At first the author skilfully misleads us into thinking that this is only Margaret’s false first impression, their meeting being the kind of witty encounter that might commence a Jane Austen romance. But