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Book Review: 1638 East Palace

1638 East Palace. Kathleen McElligott. Adelaide Books, November 2019. Trade Paperback and E-book.

Reviewed by Susan Gaspar.

1638 East Palace includes a character list before the story begins. It reminds me of the formatting for a theatrical script, and I wondered if I’d need it. But several pages in, I found myself flipping back to that character list time and again—to familiarize myself with the relationships—as names were introduced. The list ends up being a helpful roadmap for a good portion of the book, until all the characters have been interwoven.

The novel begins with news of a tragic accident, although the shock waves are not fully experienced until later when the author creates an emotional connection to the characters involved. This literary choice lends a surreal, numb feeling to the first pages of the story, and it takes a little while to become grounded again and settle into the world of the book. Although effective, it’s uncomfortable and a bit confusing, similar to the feeling you get at the sudden loss of a loved one, hearing about a shocking occurrence, or receiving news of a heartbreaking event.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there is no single protagonist. Instead, the author uses an ensemble structure that creates a circular, constantly swirling atmosphere of people and places. Rather than following a linear plot line, the reader experiences an immersive sensation of the passage of time and the evolving circumstances that define the lives of a group of characters that is mostly made up of women. The novel is broken into three parts—or acts—which transition at major turns of events or life shifts.

The absence of both traditional chapters and an unbroken storyline provides a closer, more introspective view into the minds and hearts of the characters in a way that is usually left up to a reader’s imagination. In 1638 East Palace, the reader is granted full insider access to the thoughts, fears, and desires of the main characters. It’s impossible not to continually shift loyalties as more and more information—past and present—comes to light. It’s almost as though each person is privately interviewed in short, intense shifts, telling the tale from their own point of view until something occurs to move the focus to one of the other characters.

The story is centered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but events take the reader briefly to other locales including Chicago, Boulder, and Listowel, Ireland. These travels work to develop or alter relationships, shore up life-changing decisions, and introduce us to some peripheral characters who act as catalysts. The importance of each location is the place-specific history, baggage, and conflict they bestow upon the central characters. In short, the locations themselves are not a focus, but the weight they hold over the characters is brought to light.

The assorted relationships throughout the story represent a broad slice of contemporary society, encompassing many modern social issues including separation, loneliness, single parenting, same-sex love, widowhood, and the challenges that come with disability, age, and infirmity. The author explores some of life’s trickiest terrain. None of the characters are perfect, and while some are more likeable than others, there are no true villains. The flaws and quirks of the characters define and sharpen the relationships, and the story engages the reader like a slowly unfurling southwestern soap opera wherein you root for everyone to be happy—or at least content.

Based on McElligott’s mostly straightforward and relatively unembellished writing style, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of detail used to describe everyday objects and activities. Food, décor, fashion, and human behavior are intricately drawn, and several times I was briefly distracted from a life-altering revelation or reaction by one of the characters. It occurred to me that, as in life, one sometimes notices minor aspects while enduring major difficulty—like the intense colors in a floral bouquet while in the midst of romantic turmoil, or the acrid scent of your supervisor’s cologne while being reprimanded. These momentary shifts in perspective, combined with sensory-triggering detail, serve as a metaphor for a basic human truth: life can be achingly beautiful even in the direst of moments.

This story does not shy away from hard choices, ugly situations, or uncomfortable truths. Instead, it embraces the natural messiness of true human connection—longing, sacrifice, inevitable adjustments, promises kept and broken, and ultimately, the excruciating loss when the connection is severed. In the end, 1638 East Palace is a tale of modern women intertwined at various stages of life by circumstances that sculpt and define each of them for a time—or forever.


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