A Lasting Impression by Tamera Alexander is a historical fiction novel primarily set in Nashville’s Belmont Mansion shortly after the Civil War. We follow Claire Laurent as she has to suddenly flee New Orleans for Nashville. She arrives with virtually nothing to her name other than showing signs of promising artistic talent. It’s her talent that is at the center of the story as her father owned an art gallery in New Orleans. Not everything they sold was on the up and up as he used his wife and later daughter to create copies and forgeries of famous artists. However upon her arrival in Nashville, Claire no longer wishes to engage in forgeries and desires to paint her own work.
After spending her first night in a church she happens to overhear a conversation between two of the church’s parishioners about open interviews at Belmont Mansion. Sensing this is her way to earn a living she is determined to go to the interviews. With a little help of an introduction by the church’s Reverend, she gets an interview. The rest of the book spends the time following Claire’s journey as she wrestles with her past and to reconcile it with her present and future.
I picked this book for a couple of reasons. The first being it’s been a while since I’ve read historical fiction and I missed it. The second being on a recent vacation to Nashville I happen to tour the mansion and picked up this book and another one set in Belmont Mansion.
My reaction to A Lasting Impression is rather mixed. What I enjoyed the best was since I’ve actually been to the mansion it was easy for me to see the details Alexander does a great job of including in the book. I could even very easily see the exterior and grounds even though Belmont Mansion is surrounded by Belmont University. I think Alexander’s attention to the setting was one of the strengths of the book. She also does a great job bringing out all five senses which as a writer is an area I struggle with. The time period is as rich and vivid as Belmont Mansion.
Another thing I liked about the book is the premise. I enjoyed reading a book set in a city other than New York or London. I appreciated Claire being a painter and hoping to become self-sufficient with especially in a time period where a woman’s options were very limited. Her main goal is to survive and evade her father’s business partner rather than catch some guy’s eye. Along the way that obviously happens because what would a novel like this be without that?
Overall I thought the characters were okay. As mentioned earlier, Claire is rather unique in many respects. I liked she wanted to make her own way in life. However it wasn’t until the love interest, Sutton Monroe, steps in at the end does it start to become more of a tangible possibility. Claire grated on me frequently because no matter how much she wanted to reveal the truth of her background, she doesn’t until forced to at the end. A whole lot of guilt could have been avoided. She lies for months apparently distracted by the near fairy-tale world she lives in at Belmont.
While Claire is the focal point, we do get a few chapters in Sutton Monroe’s point-of-view. I felt he was rather dull and, at times, kind of a jerk. Not toward Claire, but he has a few odd thoughts I found off putting and questioned if I was allowing my modern reader brain to cloud my judgement. It’s a possibility. His chapters also felt like they were there to provide more of the romantic aspect to the story. While I applaud the author for showing the development of romantic feelings from the male’s point-of-view, the style in which he was written was too close to how Claire was written. What I mean by this is instead of sounding like two different people with their own unique voices both come across as similar.
The supporting characters were cookie cutter and fit a lot of stereotypes I had a hard time excusing. Adelicia Acklen, the real-life builder and owner of Belmont Mansion, comes across as the typical strong-willed woman far ahead of her time. This is a trope I see a lot in historical fiction. Other supporting characters from the servants to name dropping real life members of Nashville society to other fictional characters, everyone is just there. The story suffers from a lack of a real villain. Not that all stories need a flesh and blood villain. Certainly the biggest villain can be ourselves which I think is truly Claire’s biggest villain. But the one “villain” of the book isn’t developed and makes an appearance at the beginning and end.
Which segue ways into one of the main issues I had with the book. Claire has this huge secret and there is a person in Nashville who can expose her, yet the “villain” waits until the last quarter of the book to confront her. Keep in mind he waited more than six months of them both being in the same town to contact her and despite knowing Claire’s employer is one of the most well-known and powerful people in Nashville. It felt like the author forgot all about these details to focus more on developing the romance between Claire and Sutton. Then the ending had to be written and a major plot point had to be wrapped up and thus we get the villain at the end.
My biggest problems with A Lasting Impression come from the author employing several pet peeves I have as a reader. The biggest one being an overwhelming need to emphasize certain words for no reason. And this wasn’t a device used sparingly or just for certain characters. Page after page contained at least three words emphasized no matter who was talking. As a reader it feels too much like the author telling me which words should have added meaning. Or to show me a speaking pattern? I’m not sure the point. Also, no one talks that way. Ever.
Another device employed by Alexander is telling the reader over and over again who people are in relation to the character. Yes, I understand that Cara Netta is Sutton’s kind of girlfriend. I got that the first time you told me. Yes, I understand Claire’s father told her she had no talent. Remember that scene you gave me at the beginning? I don’t need dozens of reminders even though I know it constantly weighs upon her mind. It’s as if the author doesn’t trust the audience to recall who people are.
Overall, A Lasting Impression was enjoyable but the combination of a rushed ending, main characters who sounded too much alike, and a lot of my pet peeves being utilized knocked down the rating to three pencils out of five.