cover image The Swan’s Nest

The Swan’s Nest

Laura McNeal. Algonquin, $29 (320p) ISBN 978-1-64375-320-1

McNeal (The Practice House) chronicles the romance between mid-19th-century poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett in her distinctive latest. Elizabeth, fearing a return of the debilitating and undiagnosed illness that has plagued her for over 22 years, has confined herself in her father’s London home. There, she receives a letter from Robert, telling her he loves her and her poetry. The pair correspond for five months before she gives him permission to visit her in London. Through Robert’s weekly visits, they continue to fall in love, but Elizabeth initially refuses his marriage proposal, worried her father will react poorly, given that Robert had called on her as a friend rather than a suitor. Undeterred, Robert persuades her to marry him in secret. They live in peace even after her father learns of their marriage and disinherits her. McNeal capably evokes her protagonists’ poetic sensibilities both with dialogue (“I will conform my life to any imaginable rule that puts us together,” Robert says to Elizabeth), and with her own lyrical descriptions (“On the visceral green of the greenest grass fell white blossoms that the wind tumbled and carried like snow”). This insightful novel is a must for devotees of the romantics. Agent: Doug Stewart, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Mar.)