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The Vanishing Point [Paperback]

Mary Sharratt
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sexual tension and foreboding abound in this engaging but clumsy colonial potboiler. Sharrat's novel chronicles the travails of Hannah and May Powers, close English sisters who have been raised by their physician father. May is sent to Maryland in order to be married, but when Hannah arrives in the New World for a visit, she is informed by her brother-in-law that May has died following childbirth. Hannah suspects something sinister, though, and begins searching for the truth even as she becomes romantically entangled with her sister's widower. Sharratt succeeds in keeping the plot unpredictable, even as the characters, prose and dialogue are mired in cliché and awkward syntax ("How came you here?" and "Get you back to the dock" are typical examples of the novel's 17th century-speak). An over-reliance on shifting perspectives and chronological jumps also obstructs the novel's strengths, including interesting, well-researched period detail with an emphasis on food and medicine. These winning passages coexist queasily with sex scenes that seem lifted from lesser romance novels. The plot remains sturdy, however, leading to a conclusion that is well-orchestrated and satisfying.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Though vastly different, sisters May and Hannah Powers have been raised as independent, freethinking women by their physician father. May, a lusty, vivacious spitfire, defies seventeenth-century British conventions, taking many lovers and chafing against the idea of a traditional marriage. Meanwhile, younger sister Hannah is secretly trained in the art and science of healing by her doting father. When a disgraced May is sent to America to marry a distant cousin, Hannah fears she will never see her beloved sister again. After their father's death, Hannah travels to the New World to reunite with the only family she has left. Once in Maryland, however, Hannah learns May is dead and finds herself irresistibly drawn to her brother-in-law. Although she is told her sister died in childbirth, accumulating evidence seems to suggest otherwise, and Hannah realizes she must unravel the mystery of May's life and possible death no matter what price she may pay for unearthing the truth. An authentically detailed period piece with elements of gothic suspense thrown in for good measure. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

Fans of historical fiction will lose themselves in Hawes' sumptuously evoked Renaissance Italy, and aspiring artists will respond to Vini's amazement at "how full of drawings the world is." —Booklist, ALA, Boxed Review

Hawes takes what is known of her (Lavinia Fontana, daughter of the painter Prospero Fontana) life and creates a fictionalized tale of a complicated adolescence. —Kirkus Reviews

This book is a good choice for middle school students and will appeal especially to girls who can relate to its strong, female protagonist. —VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)

About the Author

MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the coeditor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Prologue Gloucestershire, England

Hannah Powers’s father taught her about the masters of painting and engraving, how Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci had transformed vision into a new geometry. He lectured Hannah on scale and proportion. The place where a ship was lost over the horizon was known as the vanishing point.
Their servant, Joan, was a woman of fifty-three years with ropy blue veins bulging out of her red hands. She taught Hannah and her sister, May, about another kind of vanishing, about the lost people who had once populated the West Country, indeed the entire island of Britain. Their stone arrows, green mounds, and dolmens still marked the land that had swallowed them. The first people.
Once, according to Joan, the faery folk had possessed physical bodies as plain and ordinary as anyone else’s. But over the centuries, they had become fey. Their bodies grew vaporous and insubstantial, visible only at twilight and in dreams. Fleeing church bells and the glint of iron, they shrank into their hollow hills.
“A mere optical illusion, Hannah,” her father told her, referring to the vanishing point on the horizon. “In truth, the ship does not disappear. The vessel is still there, even if we on the shore cannot see it.” So it transpired that both people and ships could become ghosts without ever dying or sinking beneath the waves.

I

1 The Dream of Comets May 1689 The morning the letter arrived, May Powers awoke with a premonition. Before she even opened her eyes, her heart was pounding and her throat was so tight she thought she might choke. The taste of iron filled her mouth. Throwing the bedclothes aside, she told herself not to be silly. She laced her bodice over her shift and stepped into her skirt. After pinning her hair into a coil, she descended the narrow staircase to the kitchen to help Joan prepare breakfast. Father and Hannah were in the front room murmuring over his pile of books. May listened to them recite the Latin names of apothecary herbs.
The morning passed as uneventfully as any other, with wool to spin and seams to stitch. Just past midmorning, Hannah left for the market with Joan. In the garden, Father picked betony and woodruff. It was the end of May, the lovely month after which her departed mother had named her. The weather being fine, she took her spinning wheel to the front of the house so that she might look out on the village green, the sheep that grazed there, and the hills beyond. That morning her eyes were too restless to settle on the village; they kept wandering off toward the horizon.
When the rider trotted up to the garden gate on his mud-spattered cob, she struggled to her feet as though waking from a dream. “Is this the house of Daniel Powers?” he asked.
May nodded, and the milky-faced youth leaned from his saddle and thrust a letter at her — a piece of folded paper, sealed with wax and marked by the many hands it had passed through until it had reached hers.
“The letter did come all the way from America,” said the rider, too imperious to even flirt.
A peculiar tingling gripped her. She remembered the dream she’d had just before waking — a dream of her father showing her comets through his telescope. As she peered through that lens, the sky filled with shooting flames.
The letter was addressed to her father, Daniel Powers, Physician. She read the name of the one who had sent it — Nathan Washbrook, her father’s distant cousin who had crossed the waters to Maryland.
“Father!” she cried, racing to the back of the house where he was gathering strawberry leaves. “Father, look!” A fever gripped her, the blood running in her veins like hot wine as she broke the seal herself, not waiting for her father’s permission.
Under the hawthorn tree, beneath that canopy of foamy white flowers, she read the letter aloud. When she handed the letter to him, he nodded, as if he already knew its message. Father and daughter were silent, but the words May had read remained in the air, buzzing around them like flies.
“What think you of the letter, May?” She plucked a handful of hawthorn flowers, crushing them in her left hand while holding the letter in her right.
Father wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “My dear, can you forgive me? A year ago, I took the liberty of writing to our cousin Nathan and telling him you were still unwed. In faith, it was I who planted the idea in his head.” Had Joan and Hannah been present, there would have been hysterics. The garden would have rung with shouting, curses, and tears. But between May and her father there was neither discussion nor debate. Her fingers went limp, hawthorn flowers and letter falling to the grass. Father took her hannd.
“Could you consent?” “You might have told me this was coming,” she said. Then, looking into his eyes, she read his will. He had been praying for this oooooffer, this miracle, to take the burden of her future off his hands.
Females are scarce in the Colonies, Cousin Nathan had written.
My Son needs a Wife. He is a healthy young Man of eighteen Years. I would rejoice to have your eldest Daughter May for his Bride. In Truth, I care not that your Daughter is without Dowry. I have Wealth enough and have already paid eight Hogs Head Barrels of Tobacco to the Ship Captain to assure her speedy Passage. Please be good as your Word and see that she sails out on the Cornucopia in August.
He expected her to leave already in August, only two months away? And offering her a boy of eighteen as a bridegroom! She was twenty- two. May nearly laughed aloud. Aware of her father’s somber gaze, she sobered and considered. On the one hand, what choice did she have if she wanted to save herself and her sister from penury? Though her father was a doctor of physick, making money had never been one of his talents. In recent years, his health had gone into decline. There was no son to carry on his business. When he died, she and her sister would have to sell his globe and telescope, his skeleton and surgical instruments, his books and diagrams of human organs. Even this house would be taken from them, for they merely rented it. She and Hannah would be dowerless spinsters, wards of the parish. After what she had done to disgrace herself, ruining her chances of honorable marriage, how dare she refuse? She was twenty-two, her sister only fifteen. The burden of securing their future fell upon her.
On the other hand, what an adventure! She half believed the letter had come to answer her own prayers of deliverance. When she was a young girl, long before she had discovered the lusts that plagued her body and spoiled her reputation, she had dreamt of setting sail for unknown worlds. Once she had declared to her sister, “If I were a boy, I would run away to sea.” Only a roving young man could be as free as she longed to be. When she closed her eyes, she saw not a young bridegroom but herself at the bow of a ship.
Leaving Father alone in the garden, his query unanswered, she ran to his study, took the globe from its place on the shelf, and spun it until her eyes blurred. He found her there, twirling his prized globe. She laughed uncontrollably, her whole body shaking. Laughter was her weakness. May laughed the way other girls cried. Once she got started, there was no stopping her. Turning to her father, she laughed in his face. Without a shred of submission or obedience, she told him, “Yes, Father. Yes, I consent.”

“Fancy his name being Washbrook,” May said, trying to make light of it in the face of Joan’s glowering. “Is he descended from a line of launderers?” “I have half a mind to throttle that father of yours,” said Joan.
“You know nothing of that boy.” May, Joan, and Hannah circled around a walnut chest carved with roses and thorns, which had belonged to the girls’ mother, her maiden name having been Hannah Thorn. Once May had believed that the flowering white thorn bushes were named after her. May had lost her mother at the age of seven, so her memories of her were fleeting. Mostly she recalled her mother’s cheer and wit, how she could draw Father out of his dreariness and make him smile. Father lived in a world of sickness, death, and bleeding that terrified May. She despised the skeleton in his study, the preserved calf heart in the glass jar. What good was her father’s medicine if he had not been able to keep her mother alive?
As the eldest, May would inherit her mother’s trunk and its contents. Joan dug out the clothes and linens, the tiny infant clothes and christening gown, and laid them out on the freshly swept floor. Every article would be washed and ironed before it crossed the ocean with May. At the bottom of the chest was a woman’s shift and nightcap, but the shift was an odd one, being slit in front up to the waist. When Joan held it up to the light and shook out the dust, the sight was so lewd that May had to laugh, her fist covering her mouth.
“Our mother wore such a shift?” Joan’s reply was brusque. “It was her lying-in gown. The gown she bore you in.” The linen was so yellowed with age, it looked as if it had been handed down from their great-grandmother. Hannah went white in the face; her birth had caused their mother’s death. As long as May lived, she would never forget the sight of Mother’s drained face, mouth frozen open but silenced forever while the infant shrieked and shrieked. Hannah had been so frail, everyone feared she would follow her mother to the grave. When May looked back, she suspected the only thing that prevented Father from going insane from grief was his struggle to keep the baby alive. Ever after, he had harbored a special tenderness for Hanna...
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