Shattered Silk, by Barbara Michaels

>> Saturday, January 19, 2013


TITLE: Shattered Silk
AUTHOR: Barbara Michaels

COPYRIGHT: 1986
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Harper

SETTING: 1980s US
TYPE: Paranormal Mystery/Romance
SERIES: 2nd in Michaels' Georgetown trilogy, after Ammie Come Home and before Stitches in Time.

Karen Nevitt has brought new life to old, abandoned things. Her vintage clothing collection, nestled away in Washington, D.C.'s picturesque Georgetown, features exquisite designer originals from decades past. But there is something deadly sewn into the lace and delicate fabrics she has—clues to a forgotten mystery that is pulling Karen into a dark and terrifying place. A secret once locked away in old trunks and dusty attics is crying out for justice, and only she can make things right. But a killer still lurking in the shadows has decided that the truth must remain hidden... and Karen Nevitt must die.

It was a review at Radish Reviews that made me pick this one up for a reread. This and the trilogy it's part of have always been amongst my favourite Barbara Michaels books, and ones I've reread again and again. Clearly not in the last 10 years, though, as I was surprised to find I haven't reviewed them here. Time to rectify that oversight! (Seriously, though, I could have sworn I reread Ammie Come Home not that long ago... oh, well).

Anyway, enough waffling, and on to the review. Shattered Silk takes us back to Georgetown and Ruth Bennett (now MacDougal)'s house, where the haunting/possession in Ammie Come Home took place, but tells a story with no paranormal elements. Our main character is Karen, whose older sister was the main subject of those earlier events some (I'm guessing) 15 years earlier. Just like Sara, Karen went to live with her aunt Ruth while going to uni and met her future husband there. Unlike Sara, however, she made a really crappy choice, and ended up married to a right bastard. Jack's a university professor whose MO seems to be to get himself a young, bright and pretty undergrad, marry her and use her as unpaid labour to further his career, and then change her for a newer model as soon as she's not that dewy.

After 10 years, Karen's been traded in for the new model, and not knowing where to go, she's licking her wounds at Ruth and Patrick's house. She doesn't have much money, no marketable skills (she thinks), she's overweight and her confidence is generally shot to hell. It doesn't help that she's taken a part-time job helping out at an old friend's antique shop, and that this "friend" is a real piece of work who seems to delight in tormenting her.

It is while working there, however, that she comes up with a plan. Ruth has lots and lots of really well preserved vintage clothing. So does her mother-in-law, who used to be a legendary socialite in Georgetown, and both are happy for Karen to do whatever she wants with it. Her friend assumes she'll be the one to sell them, but what if, Karen wonders, she just set up shop herself?

The story follows Karen as she gets on her feet and starts the process to set up her shop. Along the way, she develops more and more confidence and learns to stand up to people again. I loved seeing that, and I loved that Karen also makes a very good female friend. cheryl is the sister of the guy Karen dumped for her husband all those years ago, and a widow still grieving for her late husband. In her own way, she's just as diffident as Karen, only in her case it's mostly about her lack of education. It's a supportive, healthy relationship between the two women, and I really enjoyed seeing them click and become stronger individually through it.

In addition to this there's a bit of romance (subtle, but definitely there), and a bit of a mystery, as someone seems determined to find something in Ruth and Patrick's house, and Karen and Co. suspect it might have something to do with her increasing stock of vintage clothing. I love how Michaels often has a group of friends acting as a team to solve the mystery (even if they themselves don't realise that they're a team!), and this one (Karen, Cheryl, Cheryl's brother Mark and his cop friend Tony) was great fun. The mystery itself is interesting, as well, and so is all the stuff about the vintage clothing. Some of those pieces sounded truly gorgeous.

Something else I enjoy with Michaels is her writing. I used to think it was a bit too oblique, as she hints at things, and tends to let you draw your own conclusions. It used to annoy me a bit years ago, but I've loved it every time I've read one of her books recently. She trusts her readers to get it and to be paying attention, and that's great.

As you'll see above, Shattered Silk was written in 1986, so just a couple of years before the Peter Robinson I reviewed a couple of days ago and so despised because of its dated sexual politics. This one has dated elements as well, but I was perfectly happy with it. The world Michaels was writing in might have been sexist, but she never was, and there are always plenty of strong feminist elements in her books. That's precisely why she became such a favourite when I started reading grow-up books. It was refreshing.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.

10 comments:

Ana T. 19 January 2013 09:50  

I really need to read Barbara Michaels...

Wendy 19 January 2013 20:08  

I've always been hesitant to reread Michaels because I have such fond teenage memories of her books. That old fear that they won't hold up in my jaded adult eyes :)

I never read Ammie Come Home (I tended to avoid paranormal elements, even as a teen....) but I remember really loving this one and Stitches In Time....

jmc 20 January 2013 02:46  

Shattered Silk and A Stitch in Time are two books by Michaels that I re-read periodically. Even though they are dated now, they still read well.

Mean Fat Old Bat 21 January 2013 01:08  

You make me want to go back and read it again and I will. It's been at least 20 years but your review brings it back. Thank you!

Rosario 21 January 2013 08:14  

Ana: You do, I reckon you'd like her.

Wendy: I've never really stopped rereading them (both the Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters titles), so I never had to worry about that. I'm now reading Stitches in Time, and it's even better!

jmc: I can't think of one of hers that doesn't hold up. The dated elements come across as a plus, as things that place them in a particular time and place.

Marilyn: Oh, do! I'd love to hear what you think!

Christine,  25 January 2013 19:44  

I am a huge Barbara Michaels fan and this is one of my frequent rereads as well. I love the background on the vintage clothes in this book as well as the friendship between the two women that develops and carries on into "Stitches In Time" (another favorite of mine). I really enjoyed Karen/Kara's evolution in the books. I think it makes sense given her history and she makes a nice counterpoint to Rachel in the "third" book. And while I always enjoy the supernatural element in Michaels' books I thought this one works great without it.

Christine,  25 January 2013 19:52  

I also wanted to add that I agree wholeheartedly about Michaels' "obliqueness." My experience has been the same as yours- when reading them originally "back in the day" when I was much younger I would have preferred everything spelled out more. The older I get the more I appreciate her subtlety and her sly wit. I really appreciated how she had Karen completely miss the house's connection in the book of true Georgetown ghost stories. I don't remember which book of hers (or her Peters books) where the heroine is locked up and looks up at the bars and thinks "Nuts to Lovelace." Another writer would have spelled out the joke- the Cavalier poet Robert Lovelace wrote "stone walls do not not a prison make nor iron bars a cage.." Michaels/Peters just lets you figure it out on your own- making it much more satisfying. I wish more authors had as much faith in their reader's mental acuity.

Rosario 26 January 2013 08:11  

Christine: I agree, all those elements are fantastic. It's quite amazing how well the three books (and especially the last 2) work together thematically, since they were written over such a long period.

I think the book you mention with the "Nuts to Lovelace" might be Houses of Stone? That's another of my favourites. I'm still gutted she stopped writing these so long ago, when IMO, she was at the top of her game.

Christine,  5 February 2013 19:37  

Rosario- it may very well be "Houses Of Stone"- yet another of my favorites! It's high time I pulled it out for a reread. I bought it in hardcover when it came out and it fast became a favorite of mine (despite the whole love story which came out of left field. It was one book of hers where I had no clue who the hero was going to end up being!)I almost took it with me the one time I got to meet Barbara Mertz and have a book signed but it was not her current book and was not purchased at the book signing venue and I didn't know the etiquette for such things. I deeply regretted it when I saw others having older books signed but I still treasure getting to meet her.

Rosario 6 February 2013 17:07  

Christine: That's funny, it was exactly the same for me with the romance! I can usually spot one of her heroes a mile away, even when she's trying to be mysterious (it's usually the rude one, LOL!). In Houses of Stone, though, she got me. I was convinced that guy was going to end up being treacherous!

So envious that you got to meet Barbara Mertz. I would absolutely love that!

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