San Francisco during the Gay Nineties is a place where a person's past can be erased if they have enough money. Forty-year-old Lizzie Hayes belongs to the new elite by birth, but longs for something more. She finds what she needs when she meets 70-year-old Mary Ellen Pleasant (known as both the "Fabulous Negro Madam" and the "Mother of Civil Rights") who appears at the door of the Ladies' Relief Home with five-year-old Jenny.
To the always-obedient yet independent Lizzie, Mary represents something real and her homilies about not having to "be the same person all your life" speak to Lizzie.
Jenny is a mysterious child whose stories about fairies, ghosts and angels are enough of a problem, but the day she claims a man tries to abduct her is the moment that sparks Lizzie to rebel against the conventions of society. With Miss Pleasant's encouragement and guidance, Lizzie begins to finally take charge of her life.
This full-blooded portrait of the Naughty Nineties is filled with colorful historical details and even more colorful characters. Watching Lizzie's growth from a quiet obedient woman to a rebel is marvelous. Readers will truly enjoy the manner in which Ms. Fowler evokes the language, culture, customs and lifestyle of the period as well as the fascinating storyline. (May, 321 pp., $14.00)