by Marie Benedict
Arriving on the pungent and crowded dock after a tumultuous voyage across the sea, Clara Kelley was happy to finally see the land she’d dreamed so much of. An immigrant from Ireland to America, she came to this new land of opportunity with a supreme goal in mind – make enough money to send to her family back home and sustain them as things with their tenement farm was on shaky ground. It was her duty.
Initially intent upon finding work at a local mill and bunking in with her extended family on the outskirts of Pittsburgh proper, fate shoved Clara into an entirely different direction. Hearing her name being called at the docks was unexpected, but she rose to the challenge – albeit wondering how the well-dressed gentleman knew her name and that she’d be descending from this particular vessel on this very specific day. But after a few questions and a stilted carriage ride with two posh looking young ladies who obviously bore higher stations than she, Clara realized the man had made a mistake. The Clara Kelley he was looking for – a young lady from overseas set to be a lady’s maid for the wealthy Mrs. Carnegie – never got off the boat. Instead, the present Miss. Kelley slid into her place like so much silk over ivory skin, determined to make the best of her surprise stroke of luck.
Working for Mrs. Carnegie was never going to be easy, and Clara expected as much right from the start. Growing up a simple farm girl, Clara had no idea how the routines of a great lady’s bedchamber went, how to procure the classiest style of wardrobe from the best dressmaker, or how to prepare the prettiest and most high-fashion coiffure available. And it’s not as if Clara has any help from the other servants in the great house; other than the boisterous cook Mr. Ford, no one has any use for her, jealous as they are of her elevated station in their rather equal lines of work. Her spirits sink even lower when letters from home begin to arrive – both from her family and from the sweetheart that the real Miss. Clara Kelley left behind. Every day she wakes up she is reminded that she is living a life that does not belong to her, but she also can not afford to tell anyone the truth.
Doing her best to be virtually indispensable to Mrs. Carnegie helps fill Clara’s days, and she is not blind to the subtle perks to be had while catering to one of the city’s wealthiest families. It doesn’t take long for Clara to become more accustomed to the other residents in the home, namely Andrew Carnegie, her mistress’s eldest son. The two strike up a curious bond over poetry that slowly builds into a familiarity that skirts the edge of improper, and Clara must make sure she is taking all the necessary steps to keep the budding relationship in as much of her control as possible.
She admires the handsome ginger-haired man; Andrew Carnegie has made a name for himself not only in the city of Pittsburgh, but all over the eastern seaboard. His expertise in finance and the right amount of risk-taking has helped catapult the railroad he works for into a status of absolute need and desire, and with the war coming to a close and residents beginning to travel again, Carnegie has also become instrumental in making those travels one full of luxury. But of all the things that hold his interest, the quietly charming Miss. Kelley is the most intriguing. Although he must court her in complete secrecy, Mr. Carnegie is determined to add her to his catalog of investments.
Warned by her friend Mr. Ford and with her mind full of bad news written of from home, Clara is all but hopeless that a match between she and Mr. Carnegie can be made. Letter after letter from her sister in Ireland proves to be more and more despairing, and she is desperate to figure out how to help her family’s circumstance as best she can from so far away. Will Clara be able to attain those things she wishes for most in this world – love from a wonderful man, financial stability for herself and her relatives, and a reunion of those she loves most? Or is she destined to be nothing more than a poor immigrant with no prospects at all, other than that of liar and impostor?
Author Marie Benedict plays with a marriage of history and fiction in her newest novel, Carnegie’s Maid. Using her own spin on how famed Andrew Carnegie transitioned himself and his fortune from that of innovative industrialist to philanthropist and rich sharer of libraries and knowledge to one and all, Benedict chooses a romantic path that includes a nod to her own heritage in immigration. While Carnegie was known as one of the richest men in America and has gone down in industrialist and investment history, little is known about why he chose to switch paths so quickly from an employer that offered poor working conditions and notoriously low pay to benefactor for the less fortunate. Using a forbidden romance as the reason for this drastic change of opinion, Benedict sheds a new light on a formative figure of American history.
While the book was full of historic reasoning and proper romance, I am left giving the book 4 out of 5 stars. At times the dialogue felt a bit too much like a lesson from school; more often than not I found the emotional quality and human aspect of the speech to be lacking. I was appreciative at the slow build of the romance between Clara and Andrew, but I felt that the ending left the reader feeling there was no resolution. It is understandable that Benedict could not write Clara and Carnegie as a married couple, but she also did not leave readers with any real sense over what happened after Clara departed the home. All in all, the epilogue could have been much better. I also admired the delicate way in which Benedict handled some of Carnegie’s well-known faults in business (how he treated his employees, insider information, social-climbing, etc.) Her angle was well thought out and diplomatic, and very much from Clara’s point of view.
I recommend this book to lovers of a proper/clean romance and of American history, as the depictions of Carnegie are rather interesting as the author delves into his mind and reasonings. The human aspect of Clara as an immigrant and her formidable forward-thinking as a woman is admirable and full of female empowerment. Readers may also be interested in Benedict’s first novel, The Other Einstein, which offers an interesting take on renowned physicist Albert Einstein’s first wife, who was an accomplished woman in her own right.