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Book Review: The New Domestic

Sharolett Koenig's The New Domestic defied my expectations and pulled me into a charming novel that provides what I crave most from any story: characters I can care about. Koenig gave me several, surprisingly tying them to my passion for vintage sewing machines.

I haven't read novels in a long time, and to be honest, for many years I couldn't imagine myself enjoying one. I loved many works of fiction throughout my youth, but now many years later and with limited leisure time, my appetite for fiction is fulfilled by the efficiency of the wildly popular streaming series of the day and the magnificently produced films so familiar to us.

I was curious about this book described as a "time travel" novel that somehow revolved around a sewing machine from the late 1800s. I wanted to see if the author could pull it off. My hope was that it was something of a period piece, given that my favorite films are stories from bygone centuries. I've watched, for example, several film versions of Jane Eyre and I remain willing to watch several more. Nonetheless, I was doubtful that even a book with a vintage sewing machine brand for a title could compete successfully for my precious spare time in my recliner

But having read Koenig's novel, I'm eager for the sequel the author says is coming soon. And... and... she has awoken my affinity for the form. In a matter of one brief chapter, I was reacquainted with the pleasure of my own imagination doing its part as I read. When the author tells us of Paulette, her central character of senior age, tripping through the dark to feel her way through the room by placing her hand on her antique sewing machine in its usual spot, and instead hearing the sudden cry of a baby in an unfamiliar room, my mind's eye was in charge of the visual production, not a filmmaker. I was reacquainted with the fact that viewing a story in my mind could be a real pleasure, and well on par with a good movie.

With Paulette, I saw the flare of a wooden match struck in the dark, then used by a shadowy figure to light a kerosene lantern. My mind shaped the face of "a strange man standing in nothing but his long johns," as Paulette tried to make sense of her surroundings.

She glanced over at the woman lying in bed with the covers pulled up to her eyeballs.

There was an awkward moment of silence while the baby paused to take a breath. Then as the baby resumed squalling and rocked the wooden cradle with its frantic movements, the woman and the man joined in with screams that harmonized like a frightful Halloween trio.

Then Paulette screamed too. She didn't know how long they all screamed in unison, or who screamed the loudest. But they all seemed to tire at the same time, and then just stared at each other.

From The New Domestic

This all takes place a mere six pages into the book. Sharolett Koenig gets things rolling quickly! Just as pleasing, her subtle humor is something most can enjoy, but those of us - ahem - of a more "mature" age can especially relish the clever, understated playfulness of her work.

"Put your hands in the air," the man demanded, "and drop to your knees."

Paulette raised her hands slightly. "Getting down on my knees might pose a problem," she said. "Ever since my knee surgery, I haven't been able to do monkeyshines on the floor."

The man and the woman looked at each other and frowned. "Raise your hands higher," he insisted.

"That might pose a problem also," Paulette said. "Ever since the surgery on my rotator cuff, I haven't been able to —"

"Hold your tongue, woman, and do as I tell you," he interrupted.

"Seeing as how you can't make me, I think I'll just... leave..." Paulette took a step, but in a flash the man reached for a rifle propped in the corner of the room and cocked it.

"On second thought, I think I'll just stay put." Paulette raised her hands a little higher.

From The New Domestic

Throughout the story, Paulette's spunky and capable nature continues strikingly against any notion of her senior years. She must quickly figure out her predicament, and when a solution doesn't come easily, she must adapt to an old world which is to her new yet familiar. How can this be? I'll leave that to the author, of course.

But I can tell you the titular sewing machine that Paulette loves so much factors into the story in a surprising way, and those of us who treasure our vintage machines will particularly enjoy how Koenig weaves our love of them into the plot.

The characters are compelling throughout. Paulette's family are worried about her as she navigates her adventure far from home, and each of the key family members are rounded out as figures coping with contemporary problems that we can all recognize. Each main character displays strengths as well as the weaknesses that can plague anyone in life. There is much to resolve to keep the family unified in their purpose and expectations.

They struggle with Carl's dementia. Daughter Ernestine, a driven professional and single mother who in Paulette's absence steps into the role as family matriarch, must make the difficult decisions required to ensure the family's stability. Ernestine's son Ben, unwillingly thrust to the center of mild dysfunction within the family, struggles with the challenges of his early teen years while expected to buck up and serve dutifully during crises. He accepts responsibility well beyond his years while other characters, like aunts and uncles, frustratingly fail to contribute to solutions. I've never before enjoyed a light read with so many well-crafted heroes. Paulette, Ernestine, Carl, and Ben must all gather their resolve in different ways.

While Ben begins the story bitter that he must sacrifice precious summer days to help care for his eccentric (and often quite comical) grandfather Carl, the two share their own adventure with Ben developing an affinity for old sewing machines as well. He becomes protective of his grandfather as they share time and experiences. There is even a wild escape adventure for Ben and Carl in which Ben must convince a family bully to show a little decency and support the cause.

When a story offers characters who can evolve, grow, and better themselves around a plausible set of key conflicts, it's a potential winner.

In Sharolett Koenig's capable hands the story remains rooted in a modern reality, even as we jump between a time when an increasingly erratic Carl is easily and happily absorbed in his grandson's mobile video games, to a time when Paulette must convince a 19th century woman to achieve new heights, new dreams, in spite of the resistance any humble, tradition-respecting woman of 1897 would face. That woman's name is Sarah, and her journey runs parallel to Paulette's as the two develop a deep bond. They are from different eras, from different versions of America in fact, and Koenig makes the swift friendship utterly believable and a joy to behold.

I highly recommend The New Domestic. Find the book and more information about author Sharolett Koenig at her website

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