The Courtesan’s Daughter – by Susanne Dunlap – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States)

[NOTE: I received early access to this manuscript in exchange for writing an impartial review. Thank you netgalley and Atmosphere Press. Publication Date: April 25, 2023]

THE COURTESAN’S DAUGHTER is historical fiction set in New York City during the early years of the motion picture industry, involving two women – a mother and daughter. It’s sort of a coming-of-age novel about both of them. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.

For 15 years, Justine (the mom) and Sylvie (the kid) have only had each other. Justine, a French immigrant, ekes out a meager living, applying her formidable sewing skills to piecemeal work supplied by a kind neighbor. In an effort to protect her child from scandal and “the law”, Justine keeps Sylvie sheltered, making sure they both shun the company of others. Justine’s ambitions are all focused on Sylvie’s future, convinced her child’s best chance of rising out of poverty is a degree from the local teacher’s college. But Sylvie, though a dutiful child, harbors ambitions of her own. She dreams of becoming a famous actress.

Susanne Dunlap

That, in essence, is author Susanne Dunlap’s set up. Then, an unexpected event and a couple of impulsive decisions lead both women to diverge onto new paths. Justine has secrets that must slowly be revealed (no big surprise really given the book’s title) and the sheltered Sylvie finds a not-so-glamorous side to movie-making. As each woman explores the world beyond their home — they must form new relationships, take new risks, witness how women are too often abused, and learn about the fragile nature of trust.

Sounds pretty good so far, right? Unfortunately, I found the novel’s pace slow and plodding, with some plot twists tending toward the unbelievable. Lots and lots of words spent reviewing the internal thoughts of characters, worrying obsessively over the same few concerns. The pace picks up about two-thirds of the way in. But even then I mostly just wanted to see how the plot resolved. I didn’t find I was emotionally invested in any of the main characters. For me, it was all just story.

If you have an interest in the early days of movie-making or a glimpse of life in early 20th century NYC — you might enjoy this one. Otherwise, if you want to read something by this author, I personally think you’d be more engaged by The Portraitist.

More about the author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s