In 1856 Philadelphia, runaway slave Genie Oliver uses her dress shop as a front for her work with the Underground Railroad; and reluctant heiress Abby Read runs a rooming house not just because she hates the life of the idle rich society woman, but because she has no intention of ever marrying a man. When the daughter of Abby's free black servant is grabbed by rogue slave catchers, an unlikely group of people come together, first out of necessity, and then, gradually, in friendship. And in the case of Abby and Genie, something much more.
A complex and well-paced romantic adventure
Penny Micklebury braids together the historic, romance, and thriller genres in a story about personal and racial relationships and found family in Philadelphia on the eve of the Civil War. Eugenia Oliver (who sometimes operates as Eugene) escaped slavery and navigated the complexities of establishing herself as a professional seamstress and supporting less fortunate community members while also participating in the Underground Railroad. Some of her priorities change when chance brings her together with Abigail Read, a wealthy woman who traded the expectations of high society to turn her family home into a boarding house. Initially, the two are allies in solving a mysterious disappearance, but then they fall in love and things get more complicated.
Micklebury depicts the free black community of Philadelphia in vivid detail, including the layered complications of navigating a society that isn’t as free as it pretends to be. (Note: Micklebury is black and specifically focuses on telling black women’s stories across the whole range of genres she writes in.) Her descriptive prose painted the setting so you could feel the cobblestones and the bite of the winter chill. Eugenia is a complex and engaging character and I look forward to reading more about her. (A sequel is evidently in the works.) The multiple layers of the plot kept the story moving forward (even when they didn’t quite connect with each other) without backgrounding the romantic thread.
There were a few aspects of the story that worked less well for me. The point of view was a bit erratic and I often had to re-read passages to be clear whose emotions we were feeling. The economic and social context of Abigail Read felt out of sync with my understanding of upper class white society of the time. (An unmarried woman who had enough wealth to be sought after as a wife probably wouldn’t need to convert her home into a boarding house to support herself.) And the romance between Eugenia and Abby felt rushed in the beginning, especially for two women experiencing their first same-sex attraction. But overall, this was a delightful read and adds some valuable diversity to the field of f/f historicals.