Jen Van Tieghem | Book Review
Grief, passion, and bloodlines weave through Britain, both old and new
After a fateful tragedy brought them together, authors Lisa Shapiro and Deborah Reed embarked on a writing journey resulting in a novel that blends a contemporary thriller with the story of a medieval romance.
“The Chamber and The Cross” begins with the story of Laura Bram and the sudden death of her mother — sadly something both Shapiro and Reed brought real-life experience to.
Shapiro, now a full time instructor at Mesa College, and Reed, a realtor with an office in Mission Valley, met when Shapiro’s mother — also Reed’s co-worker — was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in 2000. Reed, having lost her own mother only 18 months earlier, found herself back in the same hospital where her mother died helping Shapiro’s mom, Nicki, write a goodbye letter to her real estate clients.
As Shapiro puts it in an essay the two co-wrote called, “The Five Stages of Co-Writing,” the two became best friends as Reed offered every type of support she could as Shapiro struggled to “hold on and then let go” of her mom during her final days.
While interviewing the two over email it was easy to see the depths of their bond as they described their experiences researching and writing together. They even wrote their interview answers together saying it reminded them of their old routine —writing, tweaking, reading aloud and tweaking again for clarity.
Composing their book together clearly became part of the healing process for these women following the loss of their mothers — who they both describe as avid readers. Each of their moms imparted a love of books onto their daughters and encouraged them to read.
In addition to healing, Shapiro, a local gay author who has previously published a mystery and two romance novels with Naiad Press, said the experience of co-writing allowed her to “write a more complex and longer novel” than she could have done on her own.
That latter part proved to be one of many challenges along the way. The book includes the contemporary plot of Laura Bram along with the story of her ancestors in the 15th century. The two story arcs led to a growing page count as the writers completed several drafts.
“After a writing conference in 2012, we had to make some tough choices,” the two described via email. “Were we going to break this into two books based on the same house [one modern, one medieval]? Were we going to cut back and forth between the two time periods? Were we going to limit ourselves to a specific word count? We chose a plan of action, set a course and embarked on another rewrite.”
Literary agents asked Shapiro and Reed to shorten their manuscript but in the end the writers proclaimed that with “a big story to tell,” they simply weren’t happy “slicing and dicing” it.
“There was never a time when we wanted to do only one story,” the writers shared. “The question was whether or not we should break this into two books, one modern, and one medieval. The real richness and depth is reflected in juxtaposing two time periods in one house. To us, it feels like two parts to a whole.”
Reading the book, it’s hard to imagine it any other way.
The modern-day thriller that opens the book comes to a cliffhanger nearly halfway through the 500-page novel. Like binge-watching a riveting TV drama, this spurs the reader forward as the medieval story is then told. The lead characters of each part are strong, passionate women who share a bloodline and a home — Bannock Manor — separated by hundreds of years. As each experiences loss, love and other universal themes, the reader becomes invested in the outcome of each story — and if you’re an impatient reader like me — races to find out how the stories will inevitably interweave.
Understandably, the issue of grief is explored throughout the book. As in real life, the characters are faced with moving on and attending to every day matters; but they are repeatedly reminded of their lost loved ones and the writing expresses in earnest the raw emotions brought forth by these memories.
Shapiro and Reed noted that their early drafts had a more “somber tone” with protagonist Laura expressing her despair in angry rants. As the two worked through their own healing they were able to adjust their character’s outlook. The result leaves the deep emotions intact without derailing the storyline. Laura’s emotions still include anguish and sadness but readers will also see her hopeful side, thanks in part to a dreamy love interest.
Though it took them a decade, Shapiro and Reed went to every length to craft a detailed story, including the creation of their pivotal settings.
“Bannock Manor [is] a composite of places we’ve visited in England,” the two explained. “The house itself is based on dozens of manor houses. Most Americans are familiar with the Cotswolds. It’s a beautiful area … known for quaint, picturesque villages, and it has numerous manor houses.”
Shapiro and Reed have each travelled across the pond several times, and with Reed a self-proclaimed Anglophile knowledgeable about England’s geography, history and architecture, she was able to help weave all of them into their book.
“We took two trips together (with our posse of girlfriends) to focus specifically on research for the book,” Shapiro said. “We were able to concentrate exclusively on the region, and then we really studied manors and castles. Deborah also took a trip in which she stayed in several manor houses, toured behind the scenes and interviewed the owners.”
With that attention to detail the scenery described in the book jumps to life. Like another main character, Bannock Manor’s striking features are as important to the plot as any other piece; its history and secrets, like the protagonists, become integral parts of the story.
Between engaging dialogue, interesting characters and vivid settings, “The Chamber and The Cross” is simply the type of book you can’t put down.
Fans of the novel will be happy to know that Reed and Shapiro are currently outlining a sequel. Reed is also working on a novel set in 1349 Yorkshire during the Black Plague and Shapiro has a non-fiction project in the works based on letters written by students at San Diego State University during World War II.
For more on the book, its authors and some beautiful travel photography visit thechamberandthecross.com.
—Jen Van Tieghem can be reached at Jen@sdcnn.com.