After reading Stacey Halls’ debut novel The Familiars a few months ago, I was excited to sink my teeth into her second book. And it did not disappoint! The Foundling, set in London in 1754, is at its core about motherhood, trauma and women’s relationships with each other.
The story revolves around Bess Bright, a young, unmarried shrimp harker, and Alexandra Callard, the middle-aged widow of a merchant. The two women occupy completely different worlds, despite living in the same city. And yet they have more in common than even they suspect.
The Foundling begins as Bess gives up her newborn daughter Clara to the Foundling Hospital. Six years later, she’s finally saved up enough money to get her back, only to find that Clara has already been picked up. Not only that, but the records show that the person who took her daughter was herself, the day after she left Clara behind. Desperate to get her child back, Bess turns to a doctor at the Hospital for help.
Meanwhile, in the richer quarters of London, Alexandra Callard and her young daughter Charlotte live a reclusive life. Only leaving the house once a week to go to church on Sunday, they spend their days behind locked doors, following a strict routine. That is, until a family friend convinces Alexandra to hire a wet nurse as a companion for her lonely child.
The story offers many twists and turns, and some very satisfying plot reveals that are incredibly well done. Yet, Stacey Hall’s strongest talent is how she presents the internal thoughts and feelings of her protagonists. Despite Alexandra’s and Bess’ many differences, I found myself rooting and despising both of them in equal measures throughout the novel. They are painted as well-rounded women, with very relatable reactions and emotions, and never did their inner struggles feel like they were too on the nose or predictable. This is especially important considering the topics presented throughout the story, specifically the long-term effects of trauma.
As the novel switches between the POVs of the two women, it is very interesting to see how their thoughts and reactions are influenced and changed by contact with each other, and how they each work through their own trauma and pre-conceived notions of themselves and each other.
The reason why The Foundling is getting 4 stars instead of 5 is the ending. It felt completely rushed, as if the author had reached her intended word count and just decided to stop right there. I don’t want to spoil what actually happens, as I do really want to encourage everyone to read this book, but the ending also felt somewhat unrealistic, especially given the time frame it was executed in. It was an ending that I as a 21st century reader was rooting for, but didn’t at all expect to actually happen in 18th century London.