All in all a very interesting read, with a satisfying end. I look forward to reading more by this author.
I have wanted to read this book for a while. I've only read one other book by Gist, and, I have to say, although I thought that one was pretty good, I liked this one even better. I'm fairly new to Christian fiction in general and Christian romance in particular. Gist seems like a fantastic author to recommend to those who, like me, are used to reading secular fiction. Although "God stuff" does come up in her works, Gist doesn't seem to be too heavy-handed about it. In this book in particular, the "God stuff" is actually pretty light. During the first half of the book, it's just about nonexistent, and, in the second half, it's mostly limited to a few "what does God want me to do?" moments on Tillie's part.
As usual, Gist's writing is filled with all kinds of wonderful historical details. My knowledge of servant life is limited to English servants, and even then I don't know very much. The amount of detail in this book was wonderful, and I enjoyed the historical note Gist included at the end of the book.
One of my biggest complaints about Gist's The Measure of a Lady was my frustration with the main character's black-and-white view of the world, which sometimes made it difficult to like her. I didn't have that problem with this book. Both Tillie and Mack were enjoyable, likable characters. Tillie's desire to do good doesn't become too saccharine, and her refusal to believe what she was hearing about the director of the orphanage was perfectly understandable - after all, the entire town saw him as a fine, upstanding citizen, so why would she believe otherwise? Mack was prone to letting his temper get the best of him, getting into fights when he would have been better off dealing with problems in other ways. However, he only ever raised his fists at those he believed deserved it, and never women or children, and he gradually learned that fighting was not always the best way to solve problems. His horror when he realized that his own bad behavior at the Vanderbilt's could result in others, such as Tillie, being penalized, also went a long way towards making him likable.
I loved Tillie and Mack's relationship - there were some fantastic sparks flying between those two! Mack obviously adored Tillie, and there was no artifice in the way he dealt with her - he flat-out told her how he felt about her, and he demonstrated his feelings for her without once ever trying to make her feel jealous or otherwise force her to return those feelings in some way.
I suppose my love of Tillie and Mack's relationship leads to one of my few complaints about this book: the primary conflict keeping Tillie and Mack apart seemed a bit weak to me. It was obvious that Tillie and Mack were great together. It became increasingly obvious that the benefits of being a lady's maid would, for Tillie, probably not outweigh the drawbacks. Being a lady's maid would have been an excellent way to earn more money, which she could have used for the two things in her life that were most important to her, supporting her family and funding good organizations like the orphanage. However, lady's maids only last as long as their looks do, so her career would have been over by her early 30s. At that point, her chances of having a life like that of others in her station, with a husband and children, would be pretty slim, and yet she would not be able to fund the kind of life being a lady's maid would have accustomed her to. Tillie gets sick riding in carriages, so being able to travel would not have been of true benefit to her. Being a lady's maid would also have consumed so much of her time that the only good she could have done for others would have been with her money - volunteering her time for anything would have been impossible. As her father makes clear later in the book, Tillie siblings can support the family by getting jobs as they get older, so her monetary support isn't as necessary. Once Mack is offered the job of orphanage director, on the condition that he is married, all remaining reasons for Tillie not to be with Mack evaporate.
One thing about this book that may shock those expecting a gentle Christian story is a fairly dark event that happens near the book. Up to that point, it was very difficult for Mack to drum up enough suspicion about the orphanage director to get a proper investigation going. However, after one of the orphanage's children dies, this changes. The thing that makes this tragedy especially dark is that the child who dies isn't a random, unnamed child, but rather a girl that both Mack and Tillie had gotten to know a little. In fact, just before the girl's death, Tillie had promised to teach her how to sew, so that it would be easier for her to get proper employment after leaving the orphanage. It turns out that the orphanage director had a deal with the local brothel - the girls at the orphanage were intentionally not taught marketable skills, so that they would feel their only chance for survival once they became too old to live at the orphanage was to become prostitutes. I had expected that Tillie would manage to help the girl find a job after leaving the orphanage, and that this experience would prompt Tillie to realize that she could do more good in person rather than with monetary donations, so the girl's death was a shock.
Overall, I really liked this book and would recommend it to any reader of secular romance would wanted to delve into Christian romance but was afraid of anything too preachy or disgustingly sweet. Because of the very light amount of "God stuff," and because of the dark turn taken near the end of the book, this may not be considered an acceptable book for some regular readers of Christian fiction, however.
(Original review, with read-alikes and watch-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)