October 10, 1988 12:00 PM

by Charles McCarry

Here, at last, is a bodice ripper for the serious reader. McCarry’s sprawling (436 pages), detail-rich historical novel follows the progress of spirited Fanny Harding, who, at age 17, is left an orphan and nearly penniless. Her life takes her, in barely a year’s time, from the mud-filled streets of early 18th-century London to a port town in France and finally to the newly built towns and wild forests of the New World. There, after much adventure and suffering, she finds true love with a young French nobleman. That trite plot summary hardly describes the humor, bawdiness, fully-developed characters, complex politics, religious side roads, Indian lore, instruction in munitions, 18th-century medical knowledge and general sense of wonder that await readers of this novel. More than anything, McCarry engrossingly conveys that the vicissitudes of ordinary life 300 years ago included the constant presence of death, whether from smallpox or other fatal diseases, injuries that can now easily be remedied, Indian raids, religious wars and childbirth. Fanny’s final happiness is precious because we know, by the novel’s last pages, at what cost it comes and how quickly it could end. (New American Library, $18.95)

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