The Stolen Marriage is a fitting name for Diane Chamberlain’s new novel. However, for reasons that at first remain hidden, it’s hard to discern why this particular marriage is considered stolen.
Right away, the fact that something is wrong with Tess DeMello’s marriage to her new husband Henry Kraft is glaringly obvious. Their interactions are so loveless and cold that it’s not a stretch to imagine this has been a tragically arranged union which the couple is firmly against. Soon we discover that it’s Tess who is the true catalyst, ending an engagement to the man she had loved all her life in order to marry a man she knows nothing about and loves even less.
Chamberlain doesn’t make us suffer through half the novel to find out the reason behind Tess’s abrupt decision, which is in itself a relief. As it happens, Tess committed an indiscretion with businessman Henry Kraft as a result of a drunken night in a Washington D.C. hotel. The fact that Tess is borderline unconscious, and in no shape to give consent when she sleeps with Henry, would make the act be judged by today’s standards as non-consensual. Perhaps if the novel were set in 2017, it would perhaps be a different story. But it’s 1944, and Tess doesn’t see the painful decision to end her engagement as anything other than her own fault, and her subsequent pregnancy by Henry, a result of her mindless one-night debauchery.
Tess is of course shocked when Henry steps up and offers to marry her, since she only expects to be brushed off with enough money to make her and her baby disappear. But Henry admits his own responsibility, and after the wedding, takes Tess to his hometown of Hickory, North Carolina to introduce her as his new wife.
To say that Tess is shocked by all the changes that are abruptly forced on her, is a mirror image of the equal shock experienced by Henry’s relatives and the people of Hickory. Chamberlain’s fast-paced narrative leaves enough room for the suspense that surrounds Henry’s life, leaving clues for us to play detectives along with the young and naive Tess, who slowly learns that there’s too many secrets about her new husband that she’s not privy to.
Henry’s mother Ruth and his sister Lucy prove to be instant forces of hostility. Tess is trapped between a husband she doesn’t want, a life she feels suffocated by, and a town that judges her for who and what she is, with perhaps the exception of a curious reverend who seems to be the only one prone to show her any kindness.
Tess is ultimately somewhat freed by a polio epidemic that spreads through Hickory, forcing her husband and mother-in-law to allow her work as a nurse in the new community hospital. Can tragedy be sometimes a cover for salvation? Chamberlain drags Tess and her innocence through the mud, but she does so with a purpose.
A heroine can only be one if she frees herself of past restrictions and erroneous judgement so her fortitude can emerge. Tess DeMello becomes not so much a phoenix but the backbone of a modern-day feminist who struggles through her choices, limitations and mistakes to become a woman.
In a telephone conversation, Diane Chamberlain reveals the true story behind the polio hospital in The Stolen Marriage and her unusual encounter with an unconventional medium who inspired one of the characters in the novel.
What books are you currently reading and do you have any preferred genres?
For the last two or three weeks, all I’ve been working on are revisions for my new novel that will be published next year, so I haven’t cracked somebody else’s book in a while. Generally though, I like women’s fiction that have a good deal of mystery and suspense, something that doesn’t shortchange on relationships. You still get a lot of who these characters are, their worries and strengths. You know them as real people not just psychopaths (laughs). You care about them but there’s also a strong element of “what the heck is really going on here?”
You’ve written over twenty novels now, most of them bestsellers. How disciplined are you when it comes to your writing?
I am not at all disciplined! It takes me a long, long time to figure out what I want to write next and I usually have just a year to do that. I spend the first few months just thinking and talking with my writer friends, brainstorming. When it comes down to the real writing, there’s two ways I like to do it: one is at Starbucks, with a lot of noise, and another one is at home where I have to have complete silence. I can’t explain that, but that’s the way I am. If the weather is nice, I like to work on the porch with a nice view.
What is different between Tess DeMello, your character in The Stolen Marriage, compared to your previous female protagonists?
I think that just by virtue of the novel taking place in 1944 it makes her quite different. She’s a devout Catholic, grew up in Little Italy in Baltimore, so she has a very isolated existence in terms of not having much exposure to different kinds of people. When she’s suddenly thrown into the South, particularly in Hickory, North Carolina, suddenly she’s meeting black people, encountering no other Catholics and is actually looked down on for being Catholic. Everything that has been her world is now turned upside down.
The choices Tess makes, beginning with the end of her engagement, are rooted in a deep sense of guilt. Would you say this guilt is the reason behind all the decisions that ultimately bring her to Hickory and to be Henry’s wife?
Yes. I think that leaving Vincent (her fiancée) and not telling him about this thing she did is in fact rooted in guilt. But also, she imagines that Vincent wouldn’t want anything to do with her because of what she’s done, so it’s both guilt and fear. And when it comes to Henry, she’s thinking that she ultimately needs to provide for the child she’s going to have, and marrying him is the best way that she can do that. Otherwise, she probably would have been forced to live a lie, make up a husband who was killed overseas. She would have that hanging over her head for all time.
Tess grows quite a lot as a character, and as the novel progresses, not only is she exposed to a completely different social climate than the one she’s used to, but she also learns to be a stronger person and speak up for herself.
Yes, this is absolutely true. To me, that’s the whole point of this sort of fiction. Wherever my character starts, they’re going to change and grow for the better. That’s particularly true in this case.
The Stolen Marriage is set for the most part in Hickory, NC and you based the polio hospital in the novel with the actual hospital that Hickory residents founded in the 1940s. Why did this topic appeal to you?
It appealed to me for a few reasons. I had a great-aunt who had polio when she was young. I didn’t know her very well, but my memory of her and whenever I would see her, she was in a wheelchair with a full brace on her leg that kept it perpendicular to her body. Also, I had a very close writer friend, a woman who had polio as a child and had to spend almost a year in an iron lung and she was such an amazing person.
So polio was always in the back of my mind, and growing up in an era when the doctor always checked you for polio during your yearly examination, the topic wasn’t really that alien to me. I think what really moved me as I read about Hickory and the polio hospital was the community response, and how they built it in only fifty-four hours. People left their jobs to do this, and I think that’s incredible.
Do you have a favorite (and conversely) least favorite character?
I really have an affection for the character of Reverend Sam, who I based on a medium I met that was also a reverend. A friend of mine had told me about this guy who was allegedly able to get in touch with her deceased father. My reaction was: “Oh, this is so ridiculous!”
The very next night, I had a date with this guy whom I met thought Match.com so of course I didn’t really know him very well. I told him the story about my friend seeing this medium and he said to me, “That’s Reverend Brown. He gets in touch with my brother who was killed in Vietnam.” I thought the coincidence was just crazy, so I figured I would go see this man and debunk him.
This is how it went: The first thing that happens when you go see him, is you have to write down the name of the person you want to contact on a card. I took mine outside, where he couldn’t see me, and I wrote the name of my mother and grandmother. I then folded up the card and went into his office. He rested his hand on top of mine while I was holding the card, and started talking to me about all kinds of other stuff. I immediately thought, “Aha, he couldn’t see my card!” But then, all of a sudden he says, “Susan is here.” Susan was my mother’s name. Then he says, “Nan is here too,” who was my grandmother, and the other name I had written on the card.
That was mind-blowing for me. I’ve wanted to put that character in a book for a long time, and it seemed this was the best place for him.
My least favorite character was definitely Ruth. I should have made her a little more well-rounded, but she really was just an awful person with no redeeming features.
Can you tell me a little bit about the novel you’re working on now?
Its crazy! It’s involves some time travel which is really unusual for me. Essentially, it’s about a young woman in 1970 whose husband is killed in Vietnam and she is pregnant with his child. She learns her baby is going to die, and her brother-in-law happens reveals that he is from the future and tells her that in the year 2001, she can have fetal surgery to save her baby. He ends up talking her into traveling to the future, and everything ends up going wrong. How’s that? (laughs).