Sister Noon

Written by Karen Joy Fowler
Review by Marcia K. Matthews

In Gilded Age San Francisco, Lizzie Hayes is a volunteer for the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society. A plain spinster of forty, she’s called to the door to meet with Mary Ellen Pleasant, a real life character famous in San Francisco legend. In Sister Noon, she works as housekeeper to Thomas Bell in the mansion neighbors call the House of Mystery. The reason for her visit is to bring a child named Jenny, age five, for Lizzie to take in.

Aside from being notorious, Mrs. Pleasant has psychic powers. She reads Lizzie’s tea leaves and predicts three signs: a blue-eyed man, a white dog, and the number 12. “When you’ve seen them all, you’ll have a choice to make.”

Inspired by Mrs. Pleasant, Lizzie performs small acts of rebellion. She takes little Jenny for a walk at night. Invited to a séance at the Palace hotel, she attends only to hit up the socialites for donations. She defies the comments of her deceased mother.

Fowler excels at characterization and lyrical description. The reader is immersed in Lizzie’s struggle, but just when the story is rolling, Fowler chunks in a chapter of historical fact. She mines the jewels from history, but the matrix still shows.