Published by Atria Books
Publication date: March 1st 2016
Bess Rahner met Ehrich Weiss the summer of 1894 at Coney Island where both were performers—she a singing and dancing girl and he doing an escape act with his brother. Little did she know that this brash, confident young man would become Harry Houdini and she would be his wife. Mrs. Houdini, by Victoria Kelly, looks not only their life together, from their beginnings in traveling circuses to the worldwide acclaim that followed, but also at Bess’s life after Harry’s death in 1926. Kelly uses the freedom of fiction to go into the decade Bess spent looking for signs that he was reaching out to her from the other side.
He had made it publicly clear before his death that when he was gone, he was going to try to come back, through the communication of a private code he and Bess had established.
In this way Houdini was a bit of a conundrum because throughout his life he was an outspoken critic of psychics and anyone who said they could communicate with the dead. He attended séances and debunked spiritualists to the point that he was harassed by them. As a Jew he did not believe in the afterlife, but Bess, as a Catholic, firmly believed in heaven. Only his mother’s death seemed to temper something in him and as Kelly portrays him he does flirt with the belief that there is more to the world than we see.
I think there’s another plane of living right here where we’re standing. People who have been, people who have yet to be, what if they’re right here with us? And yet, most of us aren’t even aware of them.
At the same time, this is only one aspect of Mrs. Houdini. Kelly shifts between the years of failure and hardship, providing insight into Houdini’s rigorous work ethic and Bess’s contributions to their act, and the years of success as Bess tried to create a life of stability for them. From the beginning she was his most trusted advisor and knew what was real and what was illusion. By continuing the novel past Houdini’s death Kelly delves into the emotions felt by any woman whose life is spent in the shadow of a famous man.
In the three years since Harry’s death, she had become unmoored, searching for the sparks of her own identity while continuing to cling to Harry’s.
Mrs. Houdini does a good job of playing in the field of ‘wife-of’ historical fiction. Recent years have seen the wives of Hemingway, Poe, and Hawthorne (among others) being fictionalized in ways that are both laudatory and sad, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Mrs. Houdini. Kelly blends known details of the Houdinis’ lives with fictional what-ifs that veer from the facts for the sake of entertainment, but does so without causing the spirited Bess to disappear.
It seemed to Bess that her husband was a magician who wanted, desperately, to believe that magic was real.