When 20-year-old Violet Hayes bids farewell to her newly divorced father and his fiancée Widow Maude O’Neill in June of 1893, it’s supposedly to visit the Chicago World Fair. But what she really has in mind is to find her mother and discover why she left so suddenly nine years earlier. If it wasn’t because of illness, as her dad has told her all these years, what could it have been?
However, getting a chance to even look for her mom, let alone find her, proves much trickier than she expected. And so in A Proper Pursuit, historical fiction by Lynn Austin, we have Violet’s quest to find her mother hampered at every turn by the agenda others have for her. Socialite Aunt Agnes is determined to get her married to the most eligible bachelor in Chicago. Suffragette Aunt Matt wants her to use her energy carrying placards in demonstrations for women’s rights. On days she’s not accompanying one of the others, grandmother asks her to help out in the slums. There she is nearly overcome by the poverty and hunger, not to speak of the nasty smells.
The whole situation is complicated by the constellation of beaus this deb soon finds in her orbit. “Marry for love,” insists Aunt Birdie, who has turned quite batty after her own true love never came back from war. But do any of Violet’s suitors really love her? Why didn’t her own parents stay together since their marriage started out as a love match? And what if, when she finds her, Violet discovers her own mother doesn’t love her?
The plot is chock-full of action and variety -- what with all the people competing for our heroine’s attention. Though in true suspense form Violet’s search for her mother is hampered at every turn and the marriage proposals keep coming, all the plot ends do tie together neatly at the end.
Main character Violet tells the story in first person and so we see events from her fresh and unconventional perspective. Her sassy and irreverent thoughts about life in general and her beaus in particular give the book lots of entertaining bits. Her lively imagination, developed through voracious reading of mystery novels causes her to read lots of intrigue into the people and events that come her way. Though at first she seems superficial, she matures over the months that the story spans to become, in the end, a complex and sympathetic character.