The Plot: Nineteenth century England. Two stories.
Mary Finn, a teenage girl whose stepmother forces her into service.
James Nelligan, a small boy leaving his foster family to live at a foundling home.
Two stories, taking place years apart, until they merge into sorrow and joy.
The Good: In 1893, Mary Finn tells us about “Caden Tucker – scoundrel, braggart, and heart’s delight. He’ll never be seen again, not ever, so don’t waste your time. The officers claimed they couldn’t find him and neither could I, for all I looked till my bosom would split with holding the ache. . . . I’ll confess that there was a part of me that shone bright in the sunshine cast by Caden Tucker as it never did elsewhere. A part of me that were me, the true Mary Finn, when I were walking out with him.”
Mary meets Caden in 1877. In 1884, James, abandoned as an infant six years before, arrives at the foundling home. Do I have to connect the dots for you, to explicitly state the connection between these two very different people? So yes, we suspect what is in Mary’s future, even as we hope it isn’t true. It is, and it isn’t; Mary encounters those who are good and those who are selfish and those who are simply immature.
Mary’s life in the 1870s is depicted with language and details that put you there, both physically and emotionally, with Mary and her siblings in the countryside of England, poor, hard-working, respectable. Big and small things, both under Mary’s control and not under Mary’s control (a death, a marriage, a job, a chance encounter) bring Mary to London as a servant where she meets Caden Tucker. At each step of her journey we are with her, sympathising, and — because we are also following James’s story at the same time — wondering how these paths intersect. James, meanwhile, has a different time but in some ways a similar path, starting as an infant fostered in the countryside before being sent to London’s’ Foundling Hospital at age six.
Folly – Mary’s folly, some would say. Why is love, or even comfort, folly? Why is making a sacrifice folly? And after the world has labeled you, what then? Are we bound by our past, or are we still allowed choices about the future?
Jocelyn addresses these questions, leaving answers to the reader, as the stories of Mary and James are told in heartbreaking beautiful language that perfectly captures the diverse voices telling the story. Teenage Mary, hopeful. Young James, uncertain. Eliza, another servant, jealous of Mary. And Oliver, one of James’s teachers and a foundling himself.
Because Mary haunts me and cheers me, Folly is added to my Favorite Books Read in 2010.