Always game for a novel set during and around the events of the American Civil War, I didn’t have to read too far into the description of Susan Rivers’ soon-to-be-released The Second Mrs. Hockaday before I knew I wanted to read it. I didn’t think much of the fact that the novel promised to tell the story in question through letters, journal entries, and inquest papers—it actually would have made it more appealing because telling a story through such limited means can lead to particularly creative story-telling. In the case of The Second Mrs. Hockaday however, I think these narrative conventions fail to live up to that potential and ultimately rob the story of some of its natural tension.
Placidia Fincher Hockaday met her husband the day of her step-sister’s wedding and married him the next day when she was but seventeen years old. A widower with an infant son, Major Gryffth Hockaday and his new bride didn’t have much time to themselves before he was called back to the Confederate front lines by his commanders. For the remaining two years the war lasted, they were separated with Placidia running his farm, raising his son, and commanding his slaves. When he returned at the end of the war, he discovered that there were scandalous rumors about just what his wife had been up to in his absence—and with whom. Decades later, the Hockaday children—having buried their parents—begin to uncover their mother’s secrets from those two years, what drove a wedge between their parents, and what brought the couple back together again in the end.
While the letters, journal entires, and inquest papers prove to be a unique approach to telling this particular story, for me they failed to live up to their potential and the story as a whole suffered as a result. Letters and journal entries in particular can be remarkable ways to establish characters and their voices for the reader but—as is too often the case—the need to provide exposition for the reader becomes a tricky sticking point. The book reader rather than the character the letter is addressed to takes precedence and so the letters themselves lose much of what they could and should be in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief; it simply doesn’t make sense for Placidia writing to her cousin, Mildred, whom she grew up with and who is more like her sister to be explaining things like the various relationships between her and her step-family because Mildred was there and would already know. Similarly, the journal entries diverge too much into what feels like more of a third person narrative of events; in the later letters between the Hockaday children when they refer to their parents using their first names and other titles in ways that just don’t feel genuine, in part because they are used so inconsistently. Instead of establishing distinctive characters’ voices and styles, they feel too similar in their approaches. They all have the same habit of using literary and classical imagery in their metaphors while simultaneously feeling the need to then explain the symbolism behind it (which are obviously for the book reader’s benefit but also show a lack of faith in those readers’ and either their prior knowledge or ability to look up a reference they don’t immediately know).
Aside from the ways that the narrative format tends to collapse in on itself, it also prevents the events at the heart of the novel—a painful misunderstanding, separation, and reconciliation between Placidia and Gryffth upon his return from the war—from being directly addressed until the end of the novel. There is so much talking around specific events that they failed to live up to the characters’ hype. When the younger Hockadays begin looking into their parents’ past, there are so many dire warnings given to them by their aunt (the same cousin Mildred) despite the fact that she admits to not knowing the whole story herself. When the younger son, Charlie, learns the whole truth it temporarily shatters his sense of self and sets him off on an entirely different path in life. But when the reader finally learns the whole truth, it’s a bit anticlimactic; there were only so many things that could have happened and only so many people who might have been involved.
Though the final journal entires are touching, I can’t help but feel that the novel misses its own point. There’s so much emphasis placed on this horrible thing that happened and nearly destroyed this couple it leaves their descendents wondering how they ever could have survived it… but there is so little of the actual healing that it leaves the story feeling incomplete. There are also a number of aspects that feel underdeveloped—or that were really only dropped in to serve as red herrings, distractions. So while I do feel like the underlying story was worth telling, I think a more traditional narrative convention would have served the story better.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday will be available for purchase January 10, 2017.