Susan Meissner’s newest book, The Shape of Mercy, is a blend of contemporary and historical fiction, mystery and romance. Set in present day Santa Barbara and also in colonial America during the Salem Witch Trials, the book follows a young college student as she transcribes the diary of a young woman falsely accused of witchcraft in 1692.
I am currently reading this book and love it. I’ve often heard people talk about Susan’s skill with words, and this book emphasizes that. It’s the third book of hers that I’ve read. Each has been unique, but I love the way this story is woven together. And the mix of current day and old journal is beautifully told — it works without jarring.
“The story in a nutshell is this,” Susan says. “Lauren Durough is a West Coast English major at the proverbial age of discovery. Sheltered in her growing up years by family wealth, she is just beginning to grasp how people judge other people by what they want to believe about them, and particularly for her, how the poor view the wealthy. When she opts out of her family’s financial support, she takes on a job as a literary assistant to Abigail Boyles, an 83-year-old reclusive East Coast transplant. Abigail tasks Lauren with transcribing the diary of her ancestor, Mercy Hayworth, hanged for witchcraft in 17th-century Massachusetts. The lives of these two very different women converge as they jointly piece together the life – and death – of a third woman, Mercy Hayworth, who lived three hundred years earlier, and who also struggled against undeserved cultural stigmatization, but lost.”
Susan says the title has dual meaning. “Those who testified against the accused in Salem in 1692 often claimed their tormentors “took shape” in their bedrooms and tortured them as they slept. My fictional character Mercy was also accused of taking shape and torturing another young girl of the Village. She was innocent of course, as all those accused were, but in her last act before death, she shows that love has a shape. And its shape is mercy.”
Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and offered these insights. “Meissner’s newest novel is potentially life-changing, the kind of inspirational fiction that prompts readers to call up old friends, lost loves or fallen-away family members to tell them that all is forgiven and that life is too short for holding grudges. Achingly romantic, the novel features the legacy of Mercy Hayworth-a young woman convicted during the Salem witch trials-whose words reach out from the past to forever transform the lives of two present-day women. These book lovers-Abigail Boyles, elderly, bitter and frail, and Lauren “Lars” Durough, wealthy, earnest and
young-become unlikely friends, drawn together over the untimely death of Mercy, whose precious diary is all that remains of her too short life. And what a diary! Mercy’s words not only beguile but help Abigail and Lars together face life’s hardest struggles about where true meaning is found, which dreams are worth chasing and which only lead to emptiness, and why faith and hope are essential on life’s difficult path. Meissner’s prose is exquisite and she is a stunning storyteller.”
Susan says the concept behind The Shape of Mercy stayed with her long after she finished it. “I know I am often guilty of the same weakness my protagonist had to discover – and admit – about herself. She, like me, like so many, judge better than we love. And we let fear dictate how much love we will extend and to whom we will extend it. Not always, not in every circumstance. But it happens often enough to know I might have easily kept my quivering mouth shut had I lived in Salem in 1692. I might’ve said nothing when the Village marched to Gallows Hill to watch the accused hang.
We tend to fear what we can’t comprehend. And we tend to understand only what we want to. There is a shimmering ray of hope, however. And it actually permeated all of 1692 Salem, though it hasn’t garnered the same spotlight as the delusions of frightened and empowered people. The innocents who were hanged as witches refused to confess an allegiance to the Devil. Refused to the point of death. I find that remarkable and magnificent. It fills me with hope to consider that while we have the capacity to judge when we should show mercy, we also have the capacity to embrace Truth for all we’re worth – even if it means we give up everything for it. It wasn’t all darkness and deception in 1692 Salem. There was light there, too. It flickered every time the noose was pulled tight on the throat of one who would not give up on God and everything holy and good.”
If you would like to be entered in a drawing for this book, leave a comment. I have two copies to give away, so be sure to leave a comment. If there are more than 15 comments, I’ll pull two winners.