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Sister Noon Paperback – May 28 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
Subtle undercurrents of race and class propel this intriguing novel laden with historic fact and fancy, mystery, voodoo, frontier rough-and-tumble and turn-of-the-century social conventions. The characters rooted in this rich, exotic loam are an unforgettable crop. In 1890s San Francisco, Lizzie Hayes is a 40-year-old spinster, the well-born volunteer treasurer of the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home, familiarly called the Brown Ark because of its "shipwrecked, random air, like something the tides had left. In this respect, it matched the fortunes of most of its residents." One day, the notorious, fascinating and possibly dangerous Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant arrives at the door of the Brown Ark with a girl, Jenny Ijub, a disturbing and winsome child, perhaps four years old, rumored to be the daughter of a mother buried at sea and an unknown father, though Lizzie suspects he could be rich and thus a valuable resource for the Home. Every character's tale is complicated, unpredictable and often engrossing. Mrs. Pleasant, for instance, is a former slave (or is she?), wealthy as a railroad baron, charitable, a witch and a legendary cook. Still beautiful at 70, she is a purported dealer in underground markets where sex, opium and even murder are for sale. Fowler (Sarah Canary; The Sweetheart Season) moves her principals through time and space seamlessly and gracefully, and exquisitely renders San Francisco as it grows from outpost to city. The temporal shifts and the unreliability of some characters' histories may be temporarily disorienting, but readers who bear with Fowler will be handsomely rewarded.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
In Gilded Age-era San Francisco, fortyish spinster Lizzie Hayes is by any measure a good woman. She busies herself with worthy, conservative projects, especially her role as volunteer treasurer and fund-raiser for the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home. She does what is expected when it is expected. None in her circle suspects that a risk-taking spirit hides just beneath the surface. But when Lizzie crosses paths with the influential and notorious Mrs. Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant, opportunities for intrigue, passion, and subversion abound, and Lizzie plunges in with enthusiasm. This witty novel is a deft blend of historical fact, urban myth, social satire, and romance. Fans of E.L. Doctorow and Fowler's previous fiction (Sara Canary, The Sweetheart Season, and Black Glass) will enjoy.
- Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
When Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant requests Lizzie's aid in placing a young girl, Jenny, at the home, Lizzie finds the child a bed and anticipates no complications because of her generosity. As it happens, Lizzie is indeed called upon to account for her decision. Later, as Lizzie's questionable relationship with Mrs. Pleasant becomes grist for gossip, Lizzie's first inclination is accede to the ladies' demands and shun the infamous Mrs. Pleasant. Yet she grows more uncomfortable with this compliance and a small rebellion seethes beneath her outwardly placid demeanor.
As for little Jenny, a five-year-old child of questionable parentage, she is a convenient target for the petty meanness of the other girls at the home. As a result, the tormented Jenny longs for escape to a place of safety.
When Mr. Finny, a shady con man, contacts Lizzie Hayes, he insinuates that there is reason to doubt her own personal history and hints at a possible connection to Jenny. Seeking more specific information via the household of Mrs. Pleasant, a woman, after all, who is privy to many of the city's darkest secrets, Lizzie is further confused, but determined to unravel the mystery that confronts her.Read more ›
'Sister Noon' is set in late Nineteenth-century San Francisco. The Civil War has been over for several years, the local population has grown, and the city is just discovering its identity. Whether they know it or not, people are becoming prepared for the new century, hanging on loosely to old ideas and ideals and sometimes resisting new ones.
Lizzie works at a shelter for mostly orphaned children. Lizzie is the classic spinster: only in her early 30's, she is already an old maid in the social circles of San Francisco, with no hopes for permanent male companionship.
A different type of companion arrives in the form of a little girl named Jenny. Jenny is brought to the shelter by a Mrs. Pleasant, a strange, beautiful woman who is rumored to be a witch, a voodoo priestess, or something even more bizarre. The introduction of Jenny and Mrs. Pleasant causes Lizzie to examine her own life in ways she had never before imagined, and call into question beliefs that were formerly firmly planted in her being.
Fowler is a master of the economy of words. She gives us just enough description of the characters and their surroundings without over-doing it. She expertly introduces marvelous characters and situations that draw us deeper and deeper into the story until the final page. Fowler creates a world from the distant past that is both familiar and strange. Perhaps her sparse description makes us hunger for more. Perhaps it's the eerie mood she creates out of everyday events and objects. However you label it, Fowler's writing is magic and addictive. Don't be surprised if you find yourself under Fowler's spell, buying all of her books. And what a great spell to be under. Enjoy.
The story is really a collection of other stories - rumors, newspaper columns, hearsay, inuendo, and imagination - the only kind of information the novel's protagonist, Lizzie, can expect to receive as a spinster in nineteenth-century San Francisco. Lizzie becomes caught up in the apparent machinations of one Mrs. Pleasant, a mysterious mulatto who appears to have political pull and supernatural powers. As we learn, not is all that is seems. Fowler's conclusion - and a slap to the face of her readers - is to lambast her novel-reading Lizzie for not putting down her books and experiencing life. That is, talking with people.
Kinda makes me wish I hadn't wasted my time with "Sister Noon."
In the course of the story, Fowler brings up race, religion, mysticism, San Francisco politics, ancestor worship, motherhood, and children. Above all there's a message about women, a warning against confinement and imagination, and an encourgement towards self-assertion and independence.
The review, sounds harsh, so I'd like to give credit to Fowler for attempting something unique. And she does have a unique voice, despite some obvious flaws in her prose that belies a lack of editing, and not lack of writing skill. It's worth a read if you liked "Sarah Canary," or are willing to watch a writer engage in risky manuevers.
(By the way, Fowler doesn't seem to be very familiar with San Francisco. There were a few inaccuracies, especially in describing the weather. "Swirling fog"? The fog definitely does not "swirl" here. Also the scent of ocean and sand would not be found in downtown Geary -- it's nearly 6 miles to Ocean Beach from there, where the wind and fog typically comes from...)
Most recent customer reviews
I found this book extremely boring. I forced myself to read the whole thing because I'm a San Franciscan, but I didn't even feel it captured the city well. Read morePublished on Nov. 14 2003 by DandelionSF
I was very excited to start this book, due to the fact that I live in San Francisco and am always interested in my city's history. Read morePublished on Aug. 19 2003
I loved this book. It really draws you in in this wonderful and mystical mood that Fowler creates. I thought the development of the character throughout the book was enchanting... Read morePublished on June 26 2002 by RC
I just finished Sister Noon this morning, and do not know what quite to make of the plot. However, the writing style is superb. Right from the start I enjoyed Fowler's language. Read morePublished on May 23 2002 by Jamie Bourgeois
I so enjoyed this book! I've lived in California, and in New York City. I've often wondered about how "self possessed" the people are in those areas. Read morePublished on April 9 2002
You keep hoping you'll find a book that'll draw you in, enchant you, keep you enthralled until you finish the last word. This is that book. Read morePublished on Dec 15 2001 by Janine Smith
One of my most eagerly anticipated books this year was Karen Joy Fowler's new novel, _Sister Noon_. Fowler is one of my favorite writers. Read morePublished on Oct. 10 2001 by Richard R. Horton
Karen Joy Fowler's latest novel is truly a feast for the eyes. In her vivid, terse, yet lyrical, prose, she conjurs up a fantastic view of 19th Century San Francisco, as it evolves... Read morePublished on June 25 2001 by John Kwok
Hugo Award winning author Karen Joy Fowler ("Sarah Canary", 1991) blends fact and fantasy in her bewitching third novel, "Sister Noon. Read morePublished on May 21 2001 by Gail Cooke