MRS. HOUDINI’S RENDEZVOUS by Victoria Kelly is a haunting work of historical women’s fiction about the love shared by Bess and Harry Houdini that outlasted death itself in his greatest trick of all—communicating to Bess through a series of photographs after his premature passing. Kelly has created a compelling plot that provides insights into the Houdini’s relationship and the mysterious, complex, and sometimes manic, man that Harry was. Throughout Harry’s career as a magician, he specialized in fantastic escapes ranging from being handcuffed and submerged in freezing water to being buried alive, but Harry’s true ambition was to appear as if he had come back from “the other side.” This is, in fact, his final act and dying promise to Bess—that he will find a way back to her.
Told from the perspective of the woman who knew him best, the story unfolds through a narrative that alternates between Bess during her married years and Bess after Harry’s death. While the marriage chapters take the reader through the tumultuous struggle of the Houdini’s young marriage and Harry’s many perilous feats, the after-death chapters explore Bess’ grief and loyalty as she continues to search for her husband and fulfill his dying wish.
Along the way, Bess is confronted with jealousy, tempted in a moment of impulsive lust, anxious about Harry’s declining health, afraid of the demons their magic might awaken, disheartened at her mother’s withdrawal from her life, and demoralized by her failure to conceive a child. But none of these taxing emotions compare with the initial distress Bess feels when Harry seems to have succeeded in contacting her only to reveal his unfaithfulness as he leads her to his illegitimate child, Charles. This sudden revelation causes Bess to wonder if she ever really knew Harry, or if like magic, it is only possible to know the sides of someone that they choose to show. Bess soon learns that despite searching his entire life, Harry never found Charles though he had unwittingly come into contact with him several times over the years. It is through Charles’ photographs that Harry sends Bess their secret code and an embedded message—I am waiting for you at Young’s Pier. And sure enough, in one of Charles’ photographs from Young’s Pier 1905 an old Harry stands head-on to the the camera, while the younger version of himself prepares to leap into the frozen river.
Kelly doesn’t seem to come into her true writer’s voice until a quarter of the way through the narrative, as is the case for many debut authors. Up until this point, there are a few instances where the writing seems forced as Kelly attempts to impart information to the reader. This information seems to be spilled on the page and told too early, where I was hoping she would naturally let the story unfold to show the specifics of the Houdini’s lives instead of simply telling the reader about them. There are also several points where I want to know more about what Bess is thinking and feeling. These moments seem to be crucial but are glossed over.
MRS. HOUDINI’S RENDEZVOUS is Water for Elephants meets Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald with an element of the supernatural. Other comparative titles are The Paris Wife, Mrs. Hemingway, and The Night Circus.