Barbara Michaels is one of my favorite writers and one whose novels I return to over and over again. And my three favorites are the only ones which can be said to form a series: Ammie, Come Home, Shattered Silk, and Stitches in Time. As Barbara Michaels, MPM wrote what used to be called romantic suspense–I’m not sure what it would be called nowadays, supernatural mystery/suspense?
All three of these books are set at least partially in Georgetown in an old historic home. In Ammie, Come Home, the house features as a prominent part of the plot, in the other two books it’s just a house.
Ammie, Come Home is probably the most traditionally gothic of the three books. Ruth Bennet has inherited a distant relative’s home and her niece Sara is currently living with her–and during an otherwise innocuous seance becomes possessed by the ghost of young woman who was murdered in the home 200 years previously.
In addition to Ruth and Sara, there’s also Sara’s beau Bruce and his outspoken professor, Pat McDougal. Both Bruce and Pat also, to a certain extent, become overshadowed as well. While Sara and Bruce are the younger couple, the real character development and romance in this book is that between Ruth and Pat. They’re both in their forties, Ruth is a widow and Pat’s a lifelong bachelor. Ruth and Pat are one of my all-time favorite fictional couples–I love that they’re older and more settled, I love that they each have a history that affects their relationship with each other. Ruth’s first husband was abusive and likely raped her (this is very subtly alluded to; one needs to read closely to see what’s going on between the lines) and she is skittish like whoa and what with Pat being overshadowed by a murderous British sympathizer, well, they’ve got some things to work out. Pat’s a bit paternalistic but is aware of it and willing to be called on it and it’s absolutely hilarious to watch him apply the scientific method to the haunting.
Obviously, things do end up working out and getting resolved because this is not the kind of book where they don’t.
Shattered Silk was published 20 years after Ammie, Come Home but in terms of the book timeline, it’s only been maybe a decade. This time, the main character is Karen, Sara’s younger sister. Ruth and Pat, happily married, are going out of the country and Karen is house-sitting for them. She’s been ditched by her emotionally abusive husband and has nowhere else to go, so it’s good that that they need a house-sitter. Karen’s able to get a part-time job with one of her old college friends who now owns a second-hand clothing shop.
Karen is a mealy-mouthed and downtrodden protagonist who is really hard to sympathize with–the charm of this book is watching her emerge from that state and find herself. There is a romance here, with her old college flame Mark, but that’s really secondary to her personal growth.
As Karen works in her friend’s shop, she starts to think that this is a way she can support herself, too, and she starts to accumulate old clothing and one of her most ardent supporters is Pat’s mother, Mrs. MacDougal–known to all as Mrs. Mac. In her day, Mrs. Mac was quite the fashionista and had clothing from all the top designers, which she is willing to sell on consignment through Karen.
While Karen is acquiring stock for her future store, she’s developing a friendship with Mark’s younger sister Cheryl, and this is one of my favorite things about this book, too–the female friendships. There are also a couple of awful socialites, a murder mystery and possibly the ugliest dog in the history of fiction, Alexander.
No supernatural elements here, just a long-ago murder and awful family secrets.
The last book in the series combines elements of both Ammie, Come Home and Shattered Silk. Stitches in Time has supernatural elements as well as a bit of a mystery and a focus on historical textiles–in this case, quilts instead of clothing.
This one is a bit darker than the other two; in part because Rachel is in many ways more modern than either Ruth or Karen (in this book, she’s changed her name to Kara) and also because the interpersonal relationships are more complicated.
Rachel is a grad student who is doing her thesis on women’s magic as expressed through the medium of textiles and as a consequence, she spends a lot of time in Kara and Cheryl’s used clothing shop and when Cheryl’s husband Tony is shot responding to a domestic disturbance (he wasn’t even on duty), Rachel is promoted from customer to part-time employee while Cheryl takes on nursemaid duties.
The problem is that Rachel has a bit of a crush on Tony–and she knows it’s completely inappropriate and wouldn’t dream of acting on it. Until, that is, the cursed quilt shows up. Yes, there’s a cursed quilt. It’s an album quilt with a bunch of subtly nasty images on it and it’s been filled with graveyard dirt and when Tony throws it over Rachel’s shoulders one evening, she become overshadowed by the woman who made it–very similar to the possessions in Ammie, Come Home.
This is also a Christmas story, as it takes place in December and there is a wonderful sequence that begins in a shopping mall and culminates in Adam, Pat’s former student who is also staying at Cheryl’s over the holiday, showing off all the gifts which he purchased some of which are…unusual. Adam has a child-like glee around giving presents that I find absolutely charming, even more so when his history is taken into account.
I’m also exceedingly fond of a scene between Rachel and Ruth in which Ruth informs that while she feels sorry for Rachel that she had to deal with Pat being possessed once and if she thinks it’s going to happen again she’ll cut Rachel off without another word–I love her ruthlessness here (sorry for the terrible pun).
Just like in the other books, the mystery is resolved satisfactorily and everyone–even the restless spirits–gets a happy ending (or as happy as they can have).
I’m having a really hard time articulating why I love these books so much. They’re more than just comfort reads, although they are certainly that, too. Michaels’s books center women and their experiences–but not just that, they center women who are in a transitional place in their lives. So many of her protagonists are coming out of terrible situations and rebuilding their lives. So many of them have abuse in their past. And yet–they prevail. And in the case of these books, since we see characters years after their happy endings, we know that they endure even if the road is a bit bumpy some times. These books are about perseverance and determination.
I wish there were more books like this being published–MPM stopped writing as Michaels in the late 90’s to concentrate on her series that she writes as Elizabeth Peters (which I also love, but in a different way). This type of romantic suspense is a bit old-fashioned and I suppose that people just aren’t into reading books about spooky houses and haunted quilts and the women who love them. Alas.
She dabbles in writing speculative fiction and poetry, but non-fiction is her bread and butter. She’s known for her coverage of various issues within genre around sexism and harassment, and can be found on Twitter as @eilatan.
With Annalee Flower Horne, she is a co-founder of the intersectional geek blog, The Bias.