- What: The Red Coat: A Novel of Boston
- Who: Dolley Carlson
- Pages: 480, soft cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2014
- The lit: of 5 flames
Moms are the world’s real-life heroes. I know my mom holds that title, and I’m grateful every day for this wonderful human who brought me into the world and who taught me every thing I know. So it’s only fitting that the day before I left for a Bostonian expedition with my mother, my new e-reader — yes, I finally caved and bought one — suggested The Red Coat: A Novel of Boston, a book where one mom’s power is a central character.
The book has its flaws, but there’s something sweet and special about it too. In summary, it’s a story about young women trying to navigate this tricky world of love, life, and death with the guiding hand of their own mother. And it proves that their influence and presence are felt long after they leave us. It’s a story line we can somehow all relate to.
Norah King is a hard-working immigrant who lives and breathes her “Southie” Irish neighborhood in 1940s Boston. She’s smart, quick-witted, caring, resourceful with meager means, and loyal. She passes these traits to her children, especially her three daughters, Rosemary, Kay, and Rita who all look up to their mother.
While cleaning a home in the Brahmin neighborhood of Beacon Hill one day, the domestic worker overhears her socialite employer, Caroline Parker, discussing a red coat her daughter hasn’t worn in ages. Norah, wishing to bestow upon Rosemary something special, plucks up the courage to ask Mrs. Parker if she could take the coat home to her daughter rather than it be donated to charity. Mrs. Parker agrees — to the chagrin of her daughter, Cordelia.
The coat becomes the center piece of the King sisters’ lives. As it’s passed from sister to sister, it witnesses death and unimaginable pain, triumph, love, bravery, and difficult decisions over two decades. And through the coat, Dolley Carlson tries to demonstrate how two seemingly opposite worlds, Southie and the Hill, can surprisingly be so similar.
I’ve now visited Boston twice, and I gotta say that I have a bit of a love affair with this charming city. And you know how much I adore historical fiction, so naturally I was drawn to this novel. The Bostonian aspects — from its roots to its people and from its food to its neighborhoods — were the highlight of this book.
Just how I love books that take place in the greatest city of them all (*ahem* NYC as if you didn’t already know), I reveled in knowing various streets and neighborhoods and feeling as if I were somehow in the know about life in Boston — even if I’ve only visited twice.
The book failed in other ways though. One of those was captivation. It took me quite a while to finish this novel. Yes, it was on the longer side being near 500 pages, but it also didn’t grab my attention. Very seldom did I have one of those “I just cannot put this down” moments. And there are various reasons for this lack of enchantment.
First, it’s hard to find a central narrative. I understand that Carlson wanted to show family dynamics and growth over time and that the coat was the literary conduit for that (though not a great one), but I still didn’t get the “so what” out of this and couldn’t even place the climax. Part of that is because the two main families — the Kings and the Parkers — are too disconnected, and their stories are too loosely woven together. They connect at the beginning when Caroline and Norah have the coat exchange and then later in the book when Rita and Cordelia meet, but that’s the extent of it.
I also don’t believe Carlson does a good job of showcasing the similarities between the rich and the poor, established family and immigrant, Beacon Hill and South Boston. Yes, Cordelia and the King sisters all face hardships and have to force themselves to move forward. However, their differences are too great to really feel and understand the parallels, which contribute to the disconnect in the book.
The second reason for why this book doesn’t exude much excitement is because it has too much going on. Had this novel not endured an onslaught of detail and plots, it could have been more enjoyable. Alas, it seemed everything that ever happened to about five people spanning two decades was crammed into a book. And there’s little enthusiasm in the writing to support these details.
“The novel suffers from a matter-of-fact tone: plenty happens, but tragic moments and joyful moments read similarly,” writes Kirkus Reviews. “As a result, the book has more of the feel of a historic house or neighborhood tour.”
That’s a great line, Kirkus.
In spite of these flaws and in addition to the Boston flavor, The Red Coat illustrates the power of family — especially that of the matriarch. Just like Norah King, Mary Steffens did and still does everything for her kids. She taught me to be brave, practical, loving, hardworking, and a million other wonderful qualities that I’ll never do justice.
So regardless of some not-so-great aspects, this novel receives three flames because it’s an ode to Boston and to mothers everywhere — and reminds me of my own — and that’s something we can all appreciate.
*It feels weird to dedicate a three-flame book to Mary Steffens; she really deserves 10. Putting the scale aside, this one’s for you, Mama, and thanks for all you do.*