Rebecca D’Harlingue’s The Lines Between Us is a historical novel with a dual storyline. Employing both narration and diaries and letters written by various characters, the author recreates two time periods, moving seamlessly between seventeenth-century Ana and Juliana and twentieth-century Rachel.
In 1661 Spain, Ana begins a fruitless search for her brother, niece, and her niece’s duena, all of whom have suddenly disappeared from their home in Madrid. Believing their probable destination to be Seville, Ana follows their trail but is disappointed to find no trace of them.
Meanwhile, Ana’s niece, Juliana, does indeed arrive in Seville but without her father. The victim of an assault and pregnant, Juliana is in fear of her life. Considering the political and religious situation in Spain, she makes the difficult decision to travel to Mexico City in the New World. Upon her arrival and after her daughter is born, Juliana enters a convent, where she remains for the rest of her life. Throughout her long life she meticulously keeps a journal which is passed down through the granddaughters in the family.
Approximately a third of the way through the book, the time period changes. In 1992 Rachel, a Spanish-language professor in Missouri, goes through her recently deceased mother’s things and finds a packet containing an old diary and several letters. Although the packet is addressed to the daughter Rachel is expecting, she opens the packet and learns of her family background and her connection back to Juliana and Ana. This leads her to investigate her ancestry.
This book is well written and researched, accurately portraying the cultural, societal, and religious situations in Spain during the seventeenth century. D’Harlingue recounts the few choices open to women in a world controlled by men, where a misguided sense of honor is everything and justice is rare. However, when the diary begins to focus on life in Mexico City, the culture and society is less well described, mainly because Juliana spends her life there in a convent and has little outside contact. The very real challenges of researching ancestry is addressed, although readers may feel that Rachel somewhat too-conveniently finds exactly what she is looking for. Although the author poses some interesting questions (such as the impact on two civilizations when their cultures suddenly collide) this aspect of the book is less well developed. D’Harlingue could have added depth to the book by pursuing the impact on both the Old and the New Worlds as the Spanish began to colonize Mexico.
The characters (both through narration and diary) have an active voice in the story. It is not quite clear why the diary and letters were passed down with such secrecy through the years. This made sense in the beginning when Juliana’s assault and its consequences were involved, but less so as the years went by and society changed. Dual story lines and the discovery of an object in the present which propels the finder to investigate events from the past are popular now. Rather tongue in cheek, D’Harlingue even has one of her characters say that device is a bit trite, which I found amusing.
Overall, The Lines Between Us is an enjoyable book. Particularly well done: descriptions of how frustrating life has been for women with little power and limited roles in society.