Recently I had the opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly thanks to the publisher, Simon and Schuster through NetGalley.
Told from the perspective of Bess Houdini, wife of famed early twentieth century magician Harry Houdini, the novel looks at the quest for a wife to reach her husband beyond the grave. If anyone could find a way to communicate with the living from the afterlife, the world is certain Harry Houdini could do it. Bess, however, struggles with her grief and carving out her own identity as a woman after living for decades under the shadow of a man who was larger than life. Along the way Bess gets caught up in a mystery with a magazine reporter and they both begin to believe Harry is contacting them from beyond the veil of death. What is he trying to say? Why are they being brought together?
The one surprising aspect of Mrs. Houdini is the deeper look into the heart of a widow who doesn’t seem to know how to function without her husband. The darker themes of grief running through the main mystery plot keep the reader rooting for Bess and hoping she’ll find her footing as a woman in her own right before she gets too old to enjoy her second phase of life. Mrs. Houdini can make the reader uncomfortable at times with Bess’ inability to let Harry go but the unease is to the credit of Victoria Kelly as an author. Grief and the road to independence aren’t easy and they’re not supposed to leave the reader feeling cheerful about a wife’s lost husband. Even so, Mrs. Houdini recounts a stormy and passionate marriage through flashbacks that reveal, layer by layer, just why Bess struggles with letting old ghosts lie.
The writing in Mrs. Houdini is skillful and clean without being too overdone. It reflects the modernized attitudes in the Jazz Age and Art Deco periods in which Bess Houdini lived in her widowhood. She was a woman emerging from Victorian stiffness and embracing the freedoms women earned as they moved toward the vote and entering the workforce. Victoria Kelly’s imagery, language, dialogue, and narrative voices do a great job of sinking the reader into that transition period in world history.
Mrs. Houdini was an unexpectedly moving novel wrapped in a life-after-death mystery. It’s recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, women’s fiction, spirits, mediums, magic, and fictional takes on true stories.