Words were invented so lies could be told' Mary Ellen Pleasant. San Francisco in the 1890s is a town of contradictions, home to a respectable middle class, but with the Wild West lingering in the imagination, and even the behaviour, of some residents. Lizzie Hayes, a seemingly docile, middle-aged spinster, is praised for her volunteer work with the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home, or the Brown Ark. She doesn't know it, but she's waiting for the spark that will liberate her from convention. When the wealthy and well-connected but ill-reputed Mary Ellen Pleasant shows up at the Brown Ark with an orphan in tow, Lizzie is drawn to them both. It is the beautiful Mrs Pleasant, object of suspicion because of her mysterious past and rumoured voodoo practise, who holds the key to freeing Lizzie's rebellious nature.
Based on real historical figures, San Francisco in the gilded age is brought vibrantly to life in Karen Joy Fowler's entertaining, evocative and sinister novel.