REVIEW: The Devil and Mrs. Davenport by Paulette Kennedy

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Dear Paulette Kennedy:

This book was described as incorporating elements of “surrealism, history, mystery and romance” and being for fans of “Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier and historical fiction.” I was intrigued, even though the story didn’t necessarily sound like something I’d usually read.

The story begins with this provocative first line:

September 1955

The first day of autumn brought the fever, and with the fever came the voices.

Loretta Davenport is a 27-year-old housewife and mother living in a town in the Missouri Ozarks (the fictional town is apparently based on Springfield, Missouri). As the book opens she is suffering from an unspecified flu-like illness that leaves her bedbound and depleted for several days, on the edge of delirium. She foggily worries about her husband Pete and his ability to manage the household and their two young children, Lucas and Charlotte. On the third day she rises shakily and tries to resume her normal life, but she almost immediately suffers an attack that has her falling to the floor and waking up outside in the backyard, with no idea of how she got there. Loretta also suffers a disturbing vision of being buried alive before losing consciousness.

A local girl, Darcy Hayes, has gone missing, and Loretta comes to believe that she is having visions of what happened to her. After Loretta calls in an anonymous tip to the police department, Darcy’s body is found right where she envisioned that it would be. Loretta asks Pete, who is a professor at a local Christian college, if he thinks she may be having prophetic visions, but he denies the possibility and warns her against demonic influences.

Loretta met Pete when she was 16, four years after she was involved in a car crash that killed her mother. She dropped out of high school when they married, and since then she has lived a constricted life as the wife of a man who dismisses her as a person and seems to care more about her being the appropriate testament to his domestic order. Loretta is already rebelling in small ways – she is hiding money in the house, not so much with the idea that she’ll use it to leave Pete (at least not at first) but so she can have a tiny bit of agency. She also impulsively takes her children trick-or-treating on Halloween, something Pete has previously deemed ungodly.

Loretta and Pete’s marriage is strained by his demands and negging, her previous experience with post-partum depression (she secretly uses a diaphragm, not wanting to go through pregnancy again) and his sporadic alcohol binges.

Loretta grows more rebellious after attending a lecture by a local parapsychologist, Dr. Curtis Hansen. She begins to have secret sessions with Dr. Hansen, in which she reveals the visions that have begun to distract and at times terrify her. She has visits from her dead mother, which she finds comforting. But other visitors who seem to want her to do something (sort of ala The Sixth Sense) trouble her, and when her daughter Charlotte mentions a lady who visits her at night and stands at the end of her bed, Loretta worries that they are being haunted by a malevolent presence.

Darcy Hayes’ sister asks for Loretta’s help in finding Darcy’s killer, and a trip to the police station leads to Loretta’s gifts being dismissed by the lead detective. But another detective approaches her in the parking lot about a cold case – a local girl who went missing and was never found. It turns out that this detective has ties to Dr. Hansen, and Loretta soon discovers more “gifts” – she is able to tell things about people if she holds objects that those people have owned, an ability called psychometry. (She also experiences involuntary telekinetic fits when angry – these scare her as she’s worried about hurting her children accidentally.)

All of these abilities can be traced back to the illness Loretta suffered, though she apparently had some fledgling experience with premonitions when she was younger – she suffers from guilt over her mother’s death because she had a bad feeling all that day, but didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from.

There is a lot going on in The Devil and Mrs. Davenport – there is a strong central storyline having to do with Loretta coming into her own, and butting up against the sexism of the era and of her controlling husband. In one scene she tries to open a secret bank account – she’s been making some money writing for the Kansas City Star – and is told that she can’t open an account without her husband present. She’s also dealing with past traumas, chiefly the death of her mother. Loretta’s relationship with Pete deteriorates throughout the course of the novel, and the Davenport home is crumbling literally, not just metaphorically – cracks appear in the foundation and a leak causes the bathtub to fall into the kitchen below.

There’s the mystery of Darcy’s murder and the other girl’s disappearance, as well as a girl named Joan who Loretta has premonitions of danger about. I wasn’t sure how (or if) the disparate mysteries were related, though I assumed there would be some personal connection for Loretta. As such I was suspicious of the two male leads, Pete Davenport and Dr. Curtis Hansen, though I don’t know that I was supposed to be suspicious of both of them.

On top of these two elements there’s the paranormal aspect. I hesitate to call this the weakest part of the novel, because it did serve as a way for Loretta to come into her own – her abilities gave her a sense of self-worth that had been lacking for a long time. I appreciated them as a metaphor but when Dr. Hansen talked about the phenomena as if they have scientific validity, I didn’t like it. I couldn’t reconcile my real-world beliefs with something that feels not just not real, but like a hoax, a scam. So there’s that – it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book but it was a negative for me.

The story gets increasingly gothic and nightmarish, and Loretta has to find the courage to confront the truth and vanquish an enemy, for her own sake and for her children. The ending was fine but the epilogues piled on heavy with an HEA that didn’t work for me.

I am a little ambivalent (as usual) on a grade – Loretta was a strong heroine, and the good elements were probably A-. The things I didn’t like were maybe C+, making an average grade of B. But I’d recommend this to readers who like the 1950s setting or simply are in the mood for a little something different.

Best,

Jennie

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Jennie

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she’s read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she’s had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she’s not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

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