Review: Forever Elle, by Heather Chapman

With daring charm and grit, Heather Chapman weaves a tale of many forms of love—familial and romantic—in this tender story about Elle’s growth into a lady—even as the text itself questions what exactly a “lady” is and can be.

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“In this early 1900s historical romance and coming of age novel, we meet Elizabeth (Elle) Pratt, who hasn’t grown into herself just yet. Caught between her father s high expectations, the farm she grew up on, and the wealthy airs she learned at school, Elle is at a loss when tragedy strikes and she must head back home. There she must reconcile her two worlds, as well as the scrawny neighbor-boy turned handsome farmhand who always turns up when she least expects it.” (Book Description)

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Forever Elle by Heather Chapman

From the first lines of Forever Elle, the voice shines through. It is not a shy voice, but a daring one—a voice fit for a mountain valley: “It was a relief I wasn’t scared of heights. But then again, if I had been, I’d never have climbed that oak in the first place.” Chapman’s word choice allows us to inhabit the wild Teton Valley, with its attitudes, aromas, and actors becoming vivid and real to us.

Chapman handles the realities of the early 1900s with deft skill. She navigates them in a way that doesn’t excuse what happened during that time but gives them the reason for the time. For example, when handling a whipping from her father, Elle says,

Daddy acted like I’d made him do it, like he was forced into pulling off his belt and pelting me. Maybe it was easier for him to blame me, or maybe he truly hated it as much as I hated it.

Forever Elle, Heather Chapman, page 6

Chapman’s character recognizes the absurdity of the action, the pain it causes, the harm it does, but Chapman writes in a way that we grasp how a thirteen-year-old and her father would both view the beating in the time period. That type of writing requires skill and a focus on words that Chapman clearly manifests.

This focus is seen throughout the novel. As Chapman returns to this core relationship between Elle and her father, we realize that it is because of these childhood moments that her entire life is forced to happen in a very certain way. Does Elle blame her father? Of course. But does Elle also make her own way in her life? Yes, she does.

That’s the power of this book. Elle is a character reacting to her childhood but also paving her own path to adulthood.

Additionally, the family dynamic that exists between the entire Pratt family strengthens the entire arch of the novel. This is not a simple, quick romance novel; instead, it is a slow burn that allows us to see Elle grow and develop. Particularly, we see the relationships between Elle and her father, mother, brother, and sister are rich, complex, and pliable.

The core to this novel is Elle’s approach to being a woman and a lady. Early in the novel, she is told by her father that

the country ain’t the place to raise a lady

Forever Elle, Heather Chapman, page 47

which causes the entire next act to occur in Virginia at the house of Elle’s aunt and uncle. Within these conflicting worlds—the “civilized” East Coast and the “uncivilized” mountainous West—Elle discovers what being a lady means to her and not what is forced upon her by those in society and culture.

The little things in the book made me care. For example, I felt instantly connected to the moment when Elle’s mother gives her a map in chapter nine. That moment encapsulates the character she and her mother have become through the last eight chapters. It’s only a paragraph long, but Chapman allows us to gain a dividend for the investment of eight chapters up to this point:

Mama had given the map to me before kissing me goodbye. “It always helps to know where you are and how much farther you have to go,” she had said.

Forever Elle, Heather Chapman, page 62

My complaints for the novel were few and trivial. The characters laugh and cry a lot, as though it is the only human reaction one can take in the Teton Valley. I hope for her next book that Chapman reaches out for a greater range of emotional reactions that her characters make in intense situations. Additionally, some characters were not given enough page time for us to fully care about them before they left us forever. Particularly, William Caldwell enters the story relatively late and quickly bows out. We are left to wonder about how he came so close to Elle within the time gap that is represented within the time gap that is the three blank pages between Part One and Part Two.

Despite these complaints, I found the novel to have a strength that was pleasantly surprising. I was grounded within the familial relationships, which allowed me to see how Elle loved. I particularly enjoyed the integration of the letters from Elle’s siblings that kept this book fulfilling the promises given in the beginning chapters. We were not disappointed as Elle navigated these relationships and the twists that time (and our author) put into them.

Ultimately, I viewed the narrative as one against essentializing gender and gendered experience. Yes, the country ain’t a good place for a lady, as her father tells her, but Elle isn’t just a lady trained in a finishing school. She’s a fully formed woman with mistakes and triumphs, affected by her environment and victorious against it—instead of being Elle the mountain girl or Elizabeth the lady or Lizzy the loving niece, she is forever and always herself, Elle.

FOREVER ELLE
By Heather Chapman
Illustrated by David Polonsky 
224 pp. Sweetwater Books.
IndieBound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Target

At the request of the author, the reviewer provided a review of the novel. This book was read in its PDF print book format.

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