Contemporary New Adult
Title: The Burning of Isobel Key
Author - Jen McConnel
Date Published: October 1, 2012
When Lou travels to Scotland, she’s a mess. She’s twenty-six, unemployed, and unsure of herself. It doesn’t help that she’s traveling with Tammy, her best friend, who is everything Lou is not.
At first, the trip pushes Lou towards the brink of depression, but then she meets Brian, a handsome local tour guide. When Brian tells the tourists about the countless witches burned in Scotland, Lou starts to listen. And when she discovers information about Isobel Key, one of the victims of the seventeenth century, Lou finds renewed purpose.
Lou has begun exploring the Neo Pagan faith, a dramatic shift from her wealthy Catholic upbringing. Despite her fears of being too “hocus pocusy”, Lou turns to her new faith as she struggles to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of Isobel Key. But faith or not, Lou must face her demons if she has any hope of righting the wrongs of the past.
Read the first chapter:
“I quit!” Lou’s words echoed around the checkout line, and customers craned their necks to see what was happening. Red in the face, Lou looked down at her register in embarrassment. Her manager patted her shoulder.
“Let’s go back in the office to talk about this.” He turned, expecting her to follow.
“No!” Louder than she’d intended, Lou stood her ground. “You heard me. I’ve had enough of this store.” As she spoke, she tossed her nametag on the counter. An errant brown curl flipped over her eye, and she pushed it away. Under the shocked gaze of her manager and the curious stares of a snake-like line of holiday shoppers, Lou fled.
Once she was outside in the bitter December wind, she headed for the nearest T stop, acting out of habit more than conscious thought. She’d walked this easy route between the bookstore and the T for the past four years, and her body took over while her mind churned.
She had a college degree, for Pete’s sake! Cum laude from Duke University had landed her a job selling books and stationary to the snobby suburbanites outside of Boston. Sighing, she paid her fare and took her seat on the train bound for the city center.
Suddenly, the weight of what she had done hit her, and she buried her face in her hands. What was she thinking, quitting her job like that? Lou replayed the afternoon in her mind. Nothing had happened today that hadn’t happened a thousand other times. Maybe it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back: four years of answering bizarre questions and customers who were always right had finally taken its toll on her psyche.
But now what would she do? Lou wasn’t a person who acted on impulse: she was cautious and considered her options. And now she was unemployed the week before Christmas. Lou slumped in her seat. Unless she figured something out, and fast, she might have to move back in with her family. It wasn’t that Lou had anything against her family, not really: her parents had adopted her shortly after her birth, and they’d never made her feel like anything but their cherished only child. But Lou was almost 27, and it had never been part of her plan to live at home after college. Part of her plan: that was funny, she thought. It sounded like she’d ever had a plan.
Sure, she always knew that she’d attend college after high school. With parents who had both made careers in the medical field, Lou had never doubted that she’d follow their lead and soak up as much education as she could. Money wasn’t an issue, so when she turned 18 and Duke University accepted her, she thought it would be ideal. She moved to North Carolina and spent four years studying the liberal arts, unable to decide on a tangible career path. Nothing seemed to fit, and even though she earned her degree, she didn’t really know what she was going to do after college. It was lucky that her best friend needed a roommate in Boston, Lou mused, or she might have ended up back with her parents four years ago.
Shaking her head, Lou glanced up as the train rolled to a stop. Standing unsteadily, she tried to ignore the raging pity party in her mind. As the doors whooshed open, the cold winter air assaulted her again. For the first time she realized that she’d left her coat behind in the employee lounge. Hesitating for a moment, Lou considered taking the train back and getting her things.
“There’s no going back,” she whispered. Even the excuse of her coat might be enough to put her back in her manager’s office, begging for her job back. Shivering, Lou hurried up the stairs and out of the tunnel. The old black light posts were swathed in candy cane stripes, and every window she passed displayed some holiday decorations. What a time to be unemployed, Lou thought sourly as she buzzed the doorman at her apartment.
Unlocking the door on the seventeenth floor, Lou called out nervously, “Hello? Tammy?” Her roommate didn’t answer, and Lou felt relieved. She wasn’t ready to face anyone yet, not until she’d figured out her next step. Checking the kitschy clock on the wall of the hallway, Lou realized it was only a quarter after four. Tammy wouldn’t be home ‘til seven or later. Relaxing, Lou stacked her boots neatly in the hall closet and headed to the kitchen.
The sleek, modern kitchen was a mess: remnants from Tammy’s last party were still strewn across the stainless countertops. Sighing, Lou plugged in the electric kettle and searched for a mug. While she waited for the kettle to whistle, she started to tidy up. She loaded the dishwasher carelessly and overfilled the soap container, but when she was done the room looked much more presentable. Satisfied, Lou added a packet of hot chocolate to the mug. After a moment’s hesitation, she stirred a hearty dollop of vanilla vodka into the chipped Disney World souvenir.
Leaning against the counter, Lou studied the apartment. The kitchen was open to the rest of the space, and from her vantage point, Lou could see the living room and the stairs that led to her lofted bedroom. She sighed, wondering how much longer she’d get to enjoy this apartment with her best friend. Her parents had helped her out with bills from time to time, but Lou felt certain that all assistance of this kind would stop if they found out she was no longer employed.
“What’s the matter with me?” She wondered out loud, tears in her eyes. Taking her mug, she crossed to the living room and flopped down on the fluffy red sofa. She began flipping aimlessly through the stack of magazines on the coffee table.
Suddenly, her cell phone buzzed in her pocket. Glancing at the cracked screen, Lou saw that it was Tammy calling. Sighing, she flipped the phone open.
Tammy’s voice was crackly but excited. “Lou? Guess what? You’ll never guess what happened!”
Lou sighed, annoyed. “What?”
“They gave me an account!” Tammy squealed in delight. “Did you hear?”
“Tammy, that’s amazing!”
“And the best part is, guess where the account is based? Guess!”
Not wanting to play games, Lou asked, “Would you just tell me?”
“Scotland! Isn’t that awesome?”
Stunned speechless, Lou just stared at the phone.
“Lou! Louisa! Are you still there?”
She shook herself. “Yes, I’m here. Tammy, that’s great!”
“I know! They want me to go over there next week to check things out and meet everybody.”
“But isn’t next week Christmas? What about your family?”
Tammy laughed. “They won’t care. But Lou, wouldn’t it be perfect to spend Christmas in Scotland?”
Lou agreed that it would be. She ignored the small bubble of jealousy starting to form in her heart.
“Tammy, I’m really excited for you.”
“For us, you mean.”
“What are you talking about?”
Tammy’s voice broke into a garbled stream of words.
“Tammy!” Lou shouted. “I can’t hear you.”
“In the T…we’ll talk… home…”
The cell phone made a crunching sound and the call dropped. Lou looked at her phone and leaned back into the couch cushions. Wasn’t it just like fate to give Tammy something so wonderful, she mused, when she was so miserable? Sniffing, Lou drained her cup of spiked cocoa and headed upstairs to lie down.
I really enjoyed this book. I love history and have always been fascinated by the witch trials of Salem in the 1600s. The interludes in this book that tell Isobel's story satisfy that side of me. It makes me wonder if her story is a true one, or at least based on a true story. It is a very believable one, especially considering that time period.
Lou is a mess. She is struggling with working in a crap retail job that has nothing to do with her degree and top marks in college, while her best friend and roommate is making a ton of money and living the good life. Her adoptive parents raised her well, but her mother is condescending and domineering. She longs to find her place in this world and to have some purpose in her life. Her trip to Scotland, and Isobel's story, gives her more than she had ever hoped she would find.
A little romance thrown into the story doesn't hurt any, either! I dream of going abroad and having such an affair!
Lou's story comes full circle and has closure. I would still be interested in reading more about her new life, as well as other stories by this author.
Jen McConnel first began writing poetry as a child. Since then, her words have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including Sagewoman, PanGaia, and The Storyteller (where she won the people’s choice 3rd place award for her poem, “Luna”).
She is also an active reviewer for Voices of Youth Advocates (VOYA), and proud member of SCBWI, NCWN, and SCWW.
A Michigander by birth, she now lives and writes in the beautiful state of North Carolina. When she isn't crafting worlds of fiction, she teaches writing composition at a community college. Once upon a time, she was a middle school teacher, a librarian, and a bookseller, but those are stories for another time.
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