cover image Mrs. Houdini

Mrs. Houdini

Victoria Kelly. Atria, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5011-1090-0

Poet Kelly’s splendid debut novel is about Bess, the wife of Harry Houdini, and explores the human longing “to know what is beyond” (to quote Harry) as well as the bittersweet gifts of love. After Harry dies suddenly in 1926, Bess must reimagine her existence without its star player, cope with his debts, and fulfill a private mission. Though his lengthy investigations of spiritualism disproved its claims, Harry has promised Bess that he will contact her after death through codes only she can know. Hungry to reconnect with him, Bess suffers crushing disappointments before glimpsing one code in a photograph by newspaperman Charles Radley. When she meets the young photographer in Atlantic City, more coded messages appear in his work; as they seek explanations together, the pair journey through Bess’s deepest wounds, Houdini’s secrets, and life’s most enduring mysteries. Kelly vividly captures the Houdinis’ public rise, from their impoverished beginnings in Coney Island to worldwide celebrity, and private lives shaped by a deep marital bond, childlessness, and the death of Houdini’s beloved mother, which fueled his obsession with the afterlife. Moving effortlessly beyond mere fictionalized biography, Kelly delivers a richly lyrical and thought-provoking novel with closing twists that feel as impossible, inevitable, and satisfying—as magical, in short—as one of Houdini’s own illusions. Agent: Trena Keating, Union Literary. (Mar.)