A historical novel is a guilty pleasure with minimal guilt. Even if the story equals a prime-time soap opera, it's edifying entertainment, often offering a panorama of another time and place.
Historical novels can focus on a single event, or build on generations to tell a story. Some use an epoch simply as textured wallpaper, letting personal intrigue become the main event. With "Cassandra, Lost," it's hard to tell whether this is popcorn romance or ambitious history. The changes in tone become dizzying.
This is unfortunate, since Cassandra's story is compelling. It is based on the real Cassandra Owings, who was born to a large and prosperous family on a Maryland plantation in the 1700s. At 17, she eloped with a French lieutenant, Benedict van Pradelles. The couple journeyed to Paris to help his aristocratic family survive the French Revolution.
After numerous adventures, the young couple returned to the United States and settled in New Orleans. Cassandra tried to travel back to her home state of Maryland in 1815; the voyage was never completed. Legend has it that her ship was boarded by pirates; all aboard may have been captured, or may have perished. No one knows their fate.
Author Joanna Catherine Scott came upon this unusual woman by way of a gravestone in a Maryland cemetery that read: "Cassandra Van Pradelles, Lost at Sea, 1815." Scott's curiosity eventually propelled her to Cassandra's current descendents, who provided access to Owings's family papers.
The fictional Cassandra is a pampered, headstrong teenager. She is determined to avoid marriage to the neighbor her father has deemed a suitable match; Cassandra has fallen in love with the visiting French lieutenant. Her father forbids the union, convinced that Van Pradelles is nothing more than a worldly charmer of ladies young and old.
The story begins at an invigorating pace, and provides rich details of 18th-century plantation life, right down to tensions between Cassandra's mother and certain slave girls whom her husband finds attractive.
Cassandra is quickly proved right about her dashing husband: He urges his young bride to mend relations with her father, and he shows great integrity in protecting his family and others from the revolutionary mobs. Cassandra becomes a great help to Benedict, by nursing his mother in their Paris apartment while Benedict and his friends smuggle many families out of France.
One of the key members of the brave band is Jean Lafitte, just two years younger than Cassandra. Jean and Cassandra form a deep friendship, the kind forged in extraordinary times.
Cassandra is all but a prisoner in the Paris apartment, stranded inside by the city's extreme violence. During her long months as nursemaid and housekeeper, she sheds her spoiled-girl ways and grows into a steady, responsible young woman. Sadly for the reader, there are too many details inside the curtains-always-closed house and too few about what's happening in the streets.
With one of history's most seismic events erupting outside her windows, the saga is slowed by endless domestic details, occasionally broken by the rare bits of news that her husband sees fit to share.
Fast-forward to an escape from France and a fresh start in New Orleans, with their family growing and Benedict a success in politics and business. Pages drift by with compressed action and little dialogue, making the story seem more like a family history than a novel. Then one day Cassandra is surprised by the appearance of her old friend, Jean Lafitte, now a pirate who masquerades as a businessman. Their long-ago closeness is transformed into fiery passion. The novel once again changes tone, right into a costume melodrama.
Cassandra Owings's life could well be a fiery soap opera. But the uneven telling makes it a tepid tale.