by John A. Heldt
Annie’s Apple opens six years after The Fountain*, the first installment in Heldt’s Second Chance Series that saw elderly siblings Bill, Paul, and Annie Carpenter materialize in early 1900s San Francisco as much younger versions of themselves.
Annie’s Apple sees Bill, Cassie, and Annie in New York, 1911, while Paul and Andy, Cassie’s brother, are in Arizona embroiled in the military campaign against the Mexican revolution. While Bill and Cassie put their career plans on hold to focus on trying to start a family, Annie begins working as a society reporter for the New York Star.
Having read a number of Heldt’s books, I’m running light on superlatives. As ever, this is a brilliantly entertaining and unputdownable read. However, there is a subtle change of tone in this outing which swells to quite a noticeable shift as the novel progresses.
Despite all the Heldt hallmarks of short, multi-perspective chapters, excellent story-telling, absorbing character development, and solid research, there is a darker, deeper feel to this story and several unexpected and unusual narrative twists.
His prose is a touch snappier too. He is the master of the staccato three-sentence summary of a character’s thought processes (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read Heldt!). He deploys these with greater frequency and emotion for each of the main characters. All these switch-ups work superbly, adding a frisson of unpredictability to the narrative.
However, there is still a controlled, reassuring framework to Annie’s Apple. Within very few pages, the reader has an immediate sense of character, place, and time, it’s the literary equivalent of easing into the most comfortable of armchairs. Context and backstory from The Fountain are woven effortlessly yet unobtrusively through the opening chapters providing both familiarity and curiosity.
The siblings have evolved convincingly, and Annie’s trajectory from teenager to young woman is explored with credibility. She retains her fierce, searching intelligence and quirky, forthright nature but with a gloss of maturity and self-awareness.
Her relationship with Edith Utley, society editor of the NY Star, is amusing and gently poignant. The older woman offers insight and a soft maternal guidance which Annie sorely needs to manage her headstrong yet vulnerable personality, two competing traits that become pivotal to her choices and behavior during the course of the story.
Bill and Cassie are the quiet backbone of the novel although have their own emotional journey which is nicely explored. Andy’s blinkered existence, self-sabotage, and consequently, missed chances are frustrating, yet in a good way, ensuring maximum page-turning.
Paul, the introspective maverick, has his own side story which is full of suspense. Shannon Taylor, whom he meets by chance on Rockaway Beach is a well-realized and enigmatic character whom I have no doubt we shall see again. Heldt throws a couple of “blink and you’ll miss them” clues as to her secret before it’s revealed. It’s a biggie and will certainly have future ramifications.
Heldt introduces the Rusk family with whom Annie grows close. Charles Rusk looks to be a fairly prototypical individual but that changes. The chapters as he alters his plans to get back to New York are absolutely gripping and he really comes into his own. As with Andy’s choices, and indeed, large swathes of Annie’s Apple, the reader is kept guessing all the way and, believably so.
As always, Heldt’s historical insight is second to none. Never overbearing but integrally nuanced to the narrative. He’s ambitious with Annie’s Apple, encompassing the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the Mexican Revolution, and the Titanic disaster while maintaining a thoroughly immersive evocation of life in New York during the period.
*Click here for my review of The Fountain.