ARC Review: Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

BethlehemCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: With the writing chops of Ian McEwan and the story-craft of Lisa Wingate, Karen Kelly weaves a shattering debut about two intertwined families and the secrets that they buried during the gilded, glory days of Bethlehem, PA.

A young woman arrives at the grand ancestral home of her husband’s family, hoping to fortify her cracking marriage. But what she finds is not what she expected: tragedy haunts the hallways, whispering of heartache and a past she never knew existed.

Inspired by the true titans of the steel-boom era, Bethlehem is a story of temptation and regret, a story of secrets and the cost of keeping them, a story of forgiveness. It is the story of two complex women—thrown together in the name of family—who, in coming to understand each other, come finally to understand themselves.

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Setting: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Time bounces between 1962 and 1918-1925.

***I received an eARC copy of Bethlehem from the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, via NetGalley***

*** this post contains affiliate links ***

Review: Wow! What a read! I loved this book. Bethlehem by Karen Kelly is a back-and-forth in time read that is set in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and bounces between 1962 and the early 1920s. The 1962 section is told from the point of view of Joanna, and back in the early 20s, we see things primarily from Susannah’s perspective. Susannah is Joanna’s mother-in-law, and so the two time periods have an obvious connection that doesn’t feel forced.

I liked both time periods. The setting is the same, Brynmor, the Parrish family estate, and early on we learn that Susannah Parrish marries Wyatt Collier, the son of the head engineer at Bethlehem Steel, which is owned and operated by the Parrish family. The time period in the early twenties tells the story of how Susannah and Wyatt fell in love, and the 1962 section tells of Joanna, and her struggles living at Brynmor, and trying to fit in and live with her husband’s family.

For at least the first half of the book, not a whole lot of plot happens. I was enjoying the book, but wasn’t sure where it was going. We read about life at Brynmor, and read of Joanna’s struggles to fit in and feel a sense of belonging, and we see a youthful Susannah full of energy and happiness. Then the book starts to shift, and I realized all of the carefully crafted buildup, and I couldn’t put the book down. While it started quietly, it ended with a stunning conclusion that still leaves me a bit shaken.

Bethlehem is a book with a love triangle (or two) that works. Love, family, secrets, grief, and time all play a role. To say more would spoil the unwinding of this beautifully crafted story. This is a book about love – the kind of love you wish that you are lucky enough to find. It’s also a book about secrets and how they can weigh us down. I loved it!

Bottom Line: An excellent read. Would make a great book club selection!


LINKS ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***

Author Website

Does this sound like an interesting read? Do you enjoy books that focus on character studies or more plot driven novels?


6 thoughts on “ARC Review: Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

  1. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction (I’d rather read nonfiction about a time period that has passed), I do appreciate that this author made a clear connection between the two time periods by having the characters related. Fiction novels I’ve read that do have two time periods often feel so forced that I end up choosing a favorite time/character.

    I have to say, Ami, that the phrase “trying to fit in and live with her husband’s family” is my nightmare.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with you that so many books with a dual timeline really force the connections. Sometimes, like in this read, it feels organic and fitting, which I feel makes both sections shine.
      I also enjoy nonfiction, but I think I prefer the historical fiction. I think because the author can really flesh the characters out, and many times so much nonfiction feels like long strings of facts. I will say that the historical aspect of this book is fairly light. For example, while the book’s characters are all a part of the steel industry, there weren’t long sections that discussed the steel business. Which, for me, really worked in the books favor here.
      And about fitting in with the family, Joanna has a tough time. Not because the family is mean, but because they are so different. I found the family dynamics quite fascinating!


      1. I would have disagreed with you about nonfiction being a string of facts around a week ago. But I just finished a book called The Poison Squad that was so fact-driven that was bored to tears. I’m no wondering if I am drawn to and able to select narrative-driven nonfiction on the regular, which is why I like it and the “story” within so much.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think memoirs and like you say, more narrative-driven nonfiction feel less like a string of facts. Somehow I usually pick up the fact-laden ones which is why I really have to gear myself up to read nonfiction, even though I do love it and find it fascinating.
          I just finished one nonfiction read, called Paris 1919, which is about the Paris Peace Conference after WWI and it was basically a long string of facts, and was very light on the narrative & personal aspect of it, but I still found it fascinating. But it’s a hard book to recommend because it is so fact heavy that it feels like a textbook.


          1. That’s interesting to me because based on the title alone I would never pick up Paris 1919. I would be worried that the author would try to recreate that peace conference, whereas I need historical context, a personal slant that comes preferably from the public and what’s going on in their perspective, maybe a jaunty reporter who was there through the whole thing, etc.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. The personal slant would’ve made it more relatable I think. But, this read was just basic facts. There were odd personal items mentioned every so often – for example, one of the men there involved in discussions only wanted to talk about dinosaurs, and that humorous tidbit thrown in among a lot of hard facts felt a bit jarring- perhaps that’s why I remember it so well!


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