In Marlowe Benn’s new Julia Kydd novel, RELATIVE FORTUNES (LakeUnionPublishing), it’s 1920s New York, the price of a woman’s independence can be exorbitant—even fatal.
In 1924 Manhattan, women’s suffrage is old news. For sophisticated booklover Julia Kydd, life’s too short for politics. With her cropped hair and penchant for independent living, Julia wants only to launch her own new private press. But as a woman, Julia must fight for what’s hers—including the inheritance her estranged half brother, Philip, has challenged, putting her aspirations in jeopardy.
When her friend’s sister, Naomi Rankin, dies suddenly of an apparent suicide, Julia is shocked at the wealthy family’s indifference toward the ardent suffragist’s death. Naomi chose poverty and hardship over a submissive marriage and a husband’s control of her money. Now, her death suggests the struggle was more than she could bear.
Julia, however, is skeptical. Doubtful of her suspicions, Philip proposes a glib wager: if Julia can prove Naomi was in fact murdered, he’ll drop his claims to her wealth. Julia soon discovers Naomi’s life was as turbulent and enigmatic as her death. And as she gets closer to the truth, Julia sees there’s much more at stake than her inheritance
A Conversation with Author Marlowe Benn
Q: Why did you choose the 1920s and the suffrage movement as the backdrop for this mystery? What about the time period inspired you?
A: I grew up to the jaunty sound of my dad’s old ‘20s records, and the era has always fascinated me. In many ways it was a more radical time (especially for women) than many realize. Beyond finally achieving the right to vote, women enjoyed at least the possibility of heady new social freedoms: emerging access to birth control, fashions that defied old notions of modesty, and the opportunity to live as independent, self-sufficient adults. Not everyone embraced these new freedoms, or even condoned them, but the old restrictive conventions had been challenged, if not breached.
Q: For much of the book, there’s a sort of cold war going on between men and women. But there are some characters who cross the picket lines—literal and figurative—to advocate for women’s rights. Why was it important to you to show different kinds of men working as advocates for and as obstacles to women’s equality?
A: All the men and women in the book illustrate the gender realities of the time. It’s important to separate the overarching and pervasive nature of patriarchy from the attitudes of individual men—who can be cruel and exploitive toward women, or fair-minded and respectful. The system is one thing; individual behavior is another. For example, both Philip and Chester depict how society defaulted financial authority to men, but they use their privileges in different ways. How individuals embrace or challenge society’s larger conventions is what gives them dimension and interest as characters.
Q: Julia is a character brimming with professional ambition and a desire for independence. This aspect sets the book apart from others set in the same time. What inspired you to veer away from the more traditional narrative of a marriage plot, where a woman is desperately seeking a husband?
A: Julia’s central problem is economic, which she quickly realizes is a far more powerful factor in marriage than romance. Even today, girls can’t escape the pervasive fairytale that tells her pure and complete happiness comes from attracting, and being chosen by, a man who will thereafter take care of her. Perhaps because of what Julia’s witnessed, particularly in her parents’ marriage, she’s wary of that myth. Fortunately, she lives in one of the first modern eras when a woman could assert her right to enjoy love and relationships outside of marriage—as long as she had the means to support herself. Less fortunately, women’s opportunities to earn a sufficient livelihood were not yet plentiful. Hence her choices—like those of so many other women throughout history—are painfully few.
Q: We have to ask—what are you working on next? Anything that you can tease for readers who are looking forward to your next book?
A: I’m working hard on the next Julia Kydd novel, tentatively called The Passing of Miss Pruitt. It’s May 1925, and Julia is back in New York. Eager to launch her Capriole Press, she quickly makes friends in the publishing world—authors, editors, illustrators, publishers. Soon she’s caught up in murder and the theft of a new novel manuscript claiming to reveal explosive truths about the Harlem cabaret scene. She’s drawn into the exhilarating yet treacherous world beneath the Harlem Renaissance, where notions of race, sexuality, and power are slippery, and identities can be deceptively fluid.
Born near Boston, Marlowe Benn grew up in an Illinois college town along the Mississippi River. She holds a master’s degree in the book arts from the University of Alabama and a doctorate in the history of books from the University of California, Berkeley. A former editor, college teacher, and letterpress printer, Benn lives with her husband on an island near Seattle.
Thanks to Katie at Little Bird Publicity we have one copy to giveaway. Just tell us what you love about mysteries. We’ll announce a winner soon. Good luck.
GIVEAWAY: USA only please.