The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner is one of my most favorite books. Before reading Ms. Meissner’s contemporary-woven-with-historical novels, I didn’t care much for books that did that. In particular, one by Siri Mitchell had completely turned me off of the idea and mostly because she did a wonderful job with it and then added way too much sexual detail for me to handle–in the historical part! Eeep!
(I wrote the original blog post in February of 2011 but I revised it for this website. Additionally, this post contains affiliate links which provide me with a small commission at no extra expense to you.)
An overview of The Shape of Mercy:
Publisher’s Synopsis: “We understand what we want to understand.”
Leaving a life of privilege to strike out on her own, Lauren Durough breaks with convention and her family’s expectations by choosing a state college over Stanford and earning her own income over accepting her ample monthly allowance. She takes a part-time job from 83-year-old librarian Abigail Boyles, who asks Lauren to transcribe the journal entries of her ancestor Mercy Hayworth, a victim of the Salem witch trials.
Almost immediately, Lauren finds herself drawn to this girl who lived and died four centuries ago. As the fervor around the witch accusations increases, Mercy becomes trapped in the worldview of the day, unable to fight the overwhelming influence of snap judgments and superstition, and Lauren realizes that the secrets of Mercy’s story extend beyond the pages of her diary, living on in the mysterious, embittered Abigail.
The strength of her affinity with Mercy forces Lauren to take a startling new look at her own life, including her relationships with Abigail, her college roommate, and a young man named Raul. But on the way to the truth, will Lauren find herself playing the helpless defendant or the misguided judge? Can she break free from her own perceptions and see who she really is?
After reading Lady in Waiting (book review HERE) by Susan Meissner, I had to try this book. If she did half as well with this story as she did with Lady Jane Grey, I knew it would be wonderful. The book arrived on a day I was buried in bridesmaids dresses. Couldn’t read then. Saturday night, after I finished one dress, I decided to reward myself. I immediately grabbed this book and read it in a couple of hours.
I have a confession to make. Upon opening it, I nearly shut it and ignored it for another week or two. No kidding. The book opens with a similar scene to the One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Not only that, but Mrs. Meissner actually lapses into first person present tense for a very short while. I was so disappointed and frustrated.
I turned the page. Boy, am I glad I did. As I said, I really hoped this book would be at least half as well done as the last. It wasn’t. It is exponentially better. Lady in Waiting was the appetizer. This book is the full meal. It’s kind of funny since Meissner wrote The Shape of Mercy first. I just read them in the “wrong order” (there is no right order–unrelated).
So, what’s so great about The Shape of Mercy?
There are so many facets to this book that I find it difficult to organize them into a coherent review. Unlike the last book, I was primarily drawn to the historical character– at least at first. Mercy Hayworth is portrayed as an incredible young girl. Like Lauren, you can’t help become captivated by this young Puritan girl who truly loves the Lord and aches for the pain gripping Salem at the time– even as she endures her own pain at home. She questions the validity of the accusations, and yet, she also manages to find ways to think the best of the accusers. She’s certain that they’ve become convinced of their own stories. The horrors of so many trials and executions weigh on her until Mercy avoids anything public when she can.
There are many interwoven plots in this book– more than meets the eye at first. Lauren’s father seems quite open and shut at first, but layers of his personality unfold that explain many things. Her cousins also, in their own subtle ways, show so much of who Lauren is and how she became the young woman we meet in the story. Raul is a bit of a mystery and, in my opinion, one of the best parts of the story. I love how he refuses to be pigeonholed and yet not overtly. Abigail Boyles has several of her own subplots that add richness and depth to the story.
One of the most brilliant aspects of this book is how Lauren comes to terms with her reverse snobbery. She learns, through interaction with her roommate, Raul, her father, Abigail, and others just how she weighs everything in her life by wealth or lack of it. There is a line near the end of the book, one we’ve all heard often, but it stands out in a fresh new way in the setting in which Mrs. Meissner has placed it. “It’s not all about you.”
One of the beautiful things about Susan Meissner’s writing is how she shows pain for what it truly is without leaving us to writhe in it. This story, like the last I read, has a very sad tale woven through the pages, but it has such deep beauty to that tale. In addition, as she weaves the past into the present, Meissner manages to leave the entire book on a much lighter, happier, and more hopeful note. She may have made me a convert to historical fiction interwoven with contemporary fiction– well, at least if she writes it.
If you liked Lady in Waiting, I cannot imagine that you wouldn’t love this story. In my opinion, it is even better– richer. I think I gave this book a five-star rating in my mind before I finished the first three chapters. Perhaps it just happened to resonate with me in a way it normally wouldn’t. That’s possible, I suppose. I doubt it. I really do think that this book is just that good. Waterbrook sent me a review copy of this book back in 2011, and I didn’t keep it. I wish I had.