Publication Date: 2019
It is the 1960s and Joanna Collier is moving into her husband’s ancestral family home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There, she must learn to share space with two other women–her husband’s mother and grandmother. But, though, they seem cold at first, Joanna eventually learns all the women are harboring secrets.
The title and summary of Bethlehem promise an atmospheric historical fiction set in the 1920s, heyday of the steel titans, and, alternately, the 1960s. However, it quickly becomes clear that Bethlehem would more aptly be called a family saga, rather than historical fiction. The story focuses mainly on the interior lives of Joanna Collier and her mother-in-law Susannah, and never justifies the setting. Readers who enjoy family sagas should pick this one up, but fans of historical fiction should consider carefully.
One might assume that a book called Bethlehem would place the city, and its steel titans, in a starring role. However, the book never justifies the setting; it is merely a vehicle to make Joanna and Susannah members of polite society and tortured “corporate widows.” This, however, could have been done any number of ways; indeed, the book could very well be set in the present day among a different set of the elite. Oh, Susannah gives two speeches: one on the Moravians who founded Bethlehem and one of the history of Bethlehem Steel. But both are awkwardly shoehorned in and add nothing for the narrative. If the characters lived in a nameless city, the story would have been exactly the same.
Since Bethlehem disappoints as historical fiction, it must impress readers as a family saga. However, I have to admit, that, though I do not commonly read family sagas, they all read very much the same to me. The women are always hiding adulterous affairs or other sexual escapades. This is boring. There is no big reveal if I absolutely know everyone is going to reveal that they cheated or had a secret baby or something similar. What I really want in a family saga is something novel, like the revelation that staid Aunt Amy was once a trapeze artist or imposing Gran once formed part of a gambling den or had a secret moonshine operation. Let’s mix things up!
I think family sagas often would classify as women’s fiction, since they focus on the interior lives of women, but I do wonder if this always has to mean a focus on their romantic lives. I know the past was hard of women and there’s probably a lot of drama to be mined from women pressured into marriages because they could not do a whole lot else. But women have hopes and dreams and fears that go beyond their love lives. Let’s put someone scandalously on the stage or something, just for variety.
Bethlehem may charm some readers as a family saga. However, I feel strongly that, having read one family saga, I’ve read them all.