Original Pub: Putnam, 2009
Setting: England, 1830s
Genre: Historical Fiction
Narration: First person
My Grade: A
From Publisher: Bright and clever with a sharp-tongued, adventurous heroine who offers a candid and often funny look at the business of nursing babies in Victorian England, this is a debut novel that will have everyone talking.
Susan Rose isn’t the average protagonist: she’s scheming, promiscuous, plump, and she is also smart, funny, tender, and entirely lovable. Like many lower-class women of Victorian England, she was born into a world that offered very few opportunities for the poor and unlovely. But Susan is the kind of plucky heroine who seeks her fortune, and finds it . . . with some help from, well, her breasts. Susan, you see, is a professional wet nurse; she breast-feeds the children of wealthy women who can’t or won’t nurse their own babies.
But when her own child is sold by her father and sent to a London lady who had recently lost a baby, Susan manages to convince his new foster mother, Mrs. Norbert, to hire her as a wet nurse. Once reunited with her son, Susan discovers the Norbert home to be a much more sinister place than she’d ever expected. Dark and full of secrets, its master is in India, and the first baby who died there did so under very mysterious circumstances. Susan embarks on a terrifying journey to rescue her son before he meets the same fate.
SPOILER SUMMARY: Susan Rose is a young woman with many brothers and sisters. She lives at home with her mother, who’s a wet nurse, and her lazy, abusive father. Susan’s age is never given but I’m assuming she’s in her late teens at the youngest, early twenties at the oldest. She’s working at the home of James Bonney and his family as a servant/maid. She ends up getting pregnant by the master’s son, Freddie. She never tells him she’s pregnant and no one really notices that she is. She gives birth at home to a son named Joey. She gets a job with a new family and has to leave her son at home with her mother, who is no longer a wet nurse because her milk has dried up.
Joey ends up dying from a fever. Susan then becomes a wet nurse to a new family. From here, Susan drifts from family to family working as a wet nurse. She meets a Jewish man named Harry Abrams, who’s a dentist. She ends up getting pregnant by him. Like with her first pregnancy, she doesn’t tell him she’s pregnant. She gives birth to a son named David, aka ‘Davey.’ Her father, without her knowledge or permission, sells her baby to a family.
This is where the story gets really interesting. Susan finds out what her father did and goes on a mission to be her own son’s wet nurse. On her way to her son’s new home, she ends up getting raped. She then gets a job in the household as a wet nurse to her own son. No one in the house knows that Susan is the mother of the infant. Jane, the new mother of Davey is mentally unstable and a bit violent toward the servants at times. Susan fears for her son’s life and comes up with yet another plan! She wants him removed from the house so here’s what she does. She invents this woman named Mrs. Stone and is constantly telling Jane stories about her. She tells Jane that Mrs. Stone has bought her (Jane) a cradle for the baby. The cradle arrives. Susan puts the baby in it and has Jane go into the room with him. It’s then that we, the reader, discover that the cradle is a COFFIN. Yes, Susan wants everyone in the house to believe that mentally unstable Jane has put her son in a coffin.
The plan worked. Jane’s brother James had a talk with Susan. He told her that in the past, a servant had a baby and it was given to Jane to raise. There was some ‘accident’ and the baby died. He tells her that he knows she loves Davey like he’s her own (little does he know!) and offers him to her. He wants her to raise him and gives her lots of money to help her out.
She takes the baby and travels by train to the Hebrew district, where Davey’s father lives. She’s working yet again as a wet nurse. She fakes a toothache and the lady of the house tells her she knows of a good dentist and that she’ll show her where is office is the next day.
MY THOUGHTS: I really liked this story a lot. The story was easy to follow and it held my interest, which isn’t the easiest thing to do. Some of the things I didn’t like was Susan not telling either man that she was pregnant. I have no idea why she’d not tell them. It’s not like they’d try to take the baby away. We never learn whether Susan feared that or not. I don’t like Susan making up all that stuff about the fictional Mrs. Stone and the baby coffin but I understand why she did it. It was the only way to get Davey out of the house. I kept hoping she’d just kidnap him herself without anyone knowing she was involved but that never happened.
I do think that the whole baby coffin scheme was a really unique and disturbing twist. I winced when I read that part, I was that shocked and unsuspecting so two thumbs up to the author for that! I also liked how when we found out Susan as pregnant for the second time, it wasn’t until much later that we were told Harry was the father.
I don’t find it plausable that Susan was given her own child to raise. I don’t know anything about nineteenth century child rearing but I feel like James would have found a new home for Davey with some wealthy, childless family.
I don’t agree with the synopsis saying that Susan was ‘promiscuous.’ She willingly had sex with two men. And overall, yes, she was a good person. The only bad thing she did was what she thought she had no choice but to do.
This is the author’s first novel and I really look forward to reading her next, whenever that may be.
I received this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.