The Visionist

( 5 )

Overview

An enthralling first novel about a teenage girl who finds refuge—but perhaps not—in an 1840s Shaker community.

After 15-year-old Polly Kimball sets fire to the family farm, killing her abusive father, she and her young brother find shelter in a Massachusetts Shaker community called the City of Hope. It is the Era of Manifestations, when young girls in Shaker enclaves all across the Northeast are experiencing extraordinary mystical visions, ...

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The Visionist

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Overview

An enthralling first novel about a teenage girl who finds refuge—but perhaps not—in an 1840s Shaker community.

After 15-year-old Polly Kimball sets fire to the family farm, killing her abusive father, she and her young brother find shelter in a Massachusetts Shaker community called the City of Hope. It is the Era of Manifestations, when young girls in Shaker enclaves all across the Northeast are experiencing extraordinary mystical visions, earning them the honorific of "Visionist" and bringing renown to their settlements.

The City of Hope has not yet been blessed with a Visionist, but that changes when Polly arrives and is unexpectedly exalted. As she struggles to keep her dark secrets concealed in the face of increasing scrutiny, Polly finds herself in a life-changing friendship with a young Shaker sister named Charity, a girl who will stake everything—even her faith—on Polly's honesty and purity.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Rachel Urquhart's first novel takes us into nineteenth century worlds of opposites. After Polly Kimball burned down the family farm to escape the sexual advances of her father, she and her brother have been placed in a Shaker community where men and women are segregated and amorous ideas are regarded as moral failings. As a fire investigator narrows the search for the arsonists, Polly gains recognition in her sanctuary as a visionary. An ambitious, artfully modulated fiction—and a Discover Great New Writers selection! Editor's recommendation.

The New York Times Book Review - Amber Dermont
…[a] transfixing debut novel…Urquhart has created a world rich in detail and vibrant in its historical dimensions…Urquhart captures how the Shakers live, dance, dine, garden, heal and worship, but she also has a genuine feel for her characters' longings and devotion. She knows her black hellebore from her white poppies and writes beautifully about the spirituality of the natural world…Like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Edward P. Jones's The Known World, The Visionist aspires to illuminate our understanding of faith, resilience, shame and forgiveness.
Publishers Weekly
Urquhart has written for Vogue and Allure, yet her debut historical novel features writing of a more restrained sort. Set in 1842 in a small enclave in Massachusetts called City of Hope, the slow-to-build narrative takes a jarring peek into the segregated Shaker way of life where the “wicked ways of the World” are shunned. Told from three disparate but oddly similar-sounding points of view—teenage Polly, who burned down the family farm to escape her father’s sexual abuse; Simon Pryor, a private investigator and “expert in incendiaries” hired to get to the bottom of the crime by a wealthy entrepreneur interested in the land; and Sister Charity, a particularly prim and self-effacing member of the covenant who watches over Polly after she and her brother are dumped there by their fleeing mother—conventional cultlike behavior and the espousing of Shaker beliefs (“flesh bonds are forged in the fires of carnal sin”) abounds. Though Polly’s christening as a “Visionist” soon brings notoriety to the community and Pryor’s ardent quest to uncover the truth about who set the blaze barrels closer to resolution, the temperature of the increasingly intertwined plot fails to rise above a simmer despite some well-placed twists. Think a cadre of easily provoked characters held back by unquestioning faith—but in need of Waco’s fireworks. (Jan. 14)
National Public Radio
"Urquhart captures in exquisite detail the cruel demands of grueling poverty in 1840s New England, and, by contrast, the orderly Shaker community... She layers The Visionist with many startling moments, from the chorus of consoling angels that come to Polly when her father visits her bed at night, to the lengths to which ways her courageous mother goes to protect her...And in the course of her lyrically written tale, she offers a fresh view of this mysterious religious sect."
The Wall Street Journal
"The Visionist reads in parts like a Victorian thriller...but [it] is more than a mystery. Ms. Urquhart also takes a close look at the notions of justice, faith and morality that prevailed at the time and the struggles of those trying to live 'pure' lives...In a painstakingly researched novel framed by a suspenseful plot, Ms. Urquhart gives the reader an intriguing glimpse behind these doors."
the Oprah Magazine O
"A daring novel of secrets, revelations, and redemption...Rachel Urquhart's engrossing first novel...sparks a story of guild, greed, friendship, and fanatical piety in 19th-century Massachusetts."
(Starred Review) - Shelf Awareness
"Rich with history and mystical intrigue, Urquhart's American gothic is capable of sending chills across your skin one moment, then warming your heart the next...The story is as eerie as it is heartrending, weighing miracle against coincidence, deviation against sincerity, with the remnants of one rural family hanging in the balance. The Visionist will have you holding your breath until the final, magnificent revelation."
San Francisco Chronicle
"Rachel Urquhart's shatteringly original debut transports readers...The Visionist is told in three eloquent voices, Polly, Sister Charity and Simon Pryor, all blazingly alive, each walking a high-wire act of moral choices...writing so rich, so detailed, that you not only come to care for all the characters deeply, you also become so immersed in the world of the Shakers, you can almost feel the floor moving as they stomp in ecstatic dance. Part mystery and part thriller, The Visionist is also a shimmering exploration of identity."
The New York Daily News
"A simmering, brooding novel...[Urquhart] delivers a book perfectly suited to curling up with by the hearth...Both the era and the culture are deeply explored, as is the psyche of a tormented girl for whom it seems there is no safe haven."
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR THE VISIONIST:

"Gripping, profound, and beautifully written, The Visionist takes us to a world where faith and fear exist simultaneously and safety has a price. A remarkable exploration of love in all its forms with complex characters who linger far beyond the final pages."—Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader

"The Visionist is both a haunting, beautifully imagined tale of lives devastated by cruelty and transformed by love, and a gorgeously evocative portrait of an 1840s Shaker settlement that is as startling as it is convincing."—Cathy Buchanan, author of The Painted Girls

"Rachel Urquhart's transporting debut The Visionist lifts the veil on the intriguing, mystical past world of the Massachusetts Shakers. Equal parts exquisite historical coming-of-age story and harrowing crime procedural, The Visionist breathes life into desperate young orphan Polly Kimball, weaving a complex and compelling drama about one of American history's most elusive religious communities. Lovers of historical fiction and seekers after truth will devour The Visionist just like I did."—Katherine Howe, New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

"Rachel Urquhart paints a fascinating, complex portrait of Shaker culture in early America. An unexpected coming of age story, a suspenseful mystery. But what makes The Visionist particularly engaging is its thoughtful examination of the nature of good and evil, and our struggle to recognize it in ourselves and in others."—Eowyn Ivey, New York Times bestselling author of The Snow Child

"Urquhart captures in exquisite detail the cruel demands of grueling poverty in 1840s New England, and, by contrast, the orderly Shaker community... She layers The Visionist with many startling moments, from the chorus of consoling angels that come to Polly when her father visits her bed at night, to the lengths to which ways her courageous mother goes to protect her...And in the course of her lyrically written tale, she offers a fresh view of this mysterious religious sect." -National Public Radio

"Urquhart has created a world rich in details and vibrant in its historical dimensions...Urquhart captures how the Shakers live, dance, dine, garden, heal and worship, but she also has a genuine feel for her characters' longings and devotion...The true virtue of this story is the meditative consideration of the value of hardship and the transformative nature of ecstasy. Like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Edward P. Jones's The Known World, The Visionist aspires to illuminate our understanding of faith, resilience, shame and forgiveness." - Amber Dermont, New York Times

"The Visionist reads in parts like a Victorian thriller...but [it] is more than a mystery. Ms. Urquhart also takes a close look at the notions of justice, faith and morality that prevailed at the time and the struggles of those trying to live 'pure' lives...In a painstakingly researched novel framed by a suspenseful plot, Ms. Urquhart gives the reader an intriguing glimpse behind these doors." - The Wall Street Journal

"Beautifully written in the language and style of the 1840s, "The Visionist" is a fascinating story detailing an often overlooked religious sect: the Shakers."-The Gazette (Iowa City)

"A daring novel of secrets, revelations, and redemption...Rachel Urquhart's engrossing first novel...sparks a story of guild, greed, friendship, and fanatical piety in 19th-century Massachusetts." -O, the Oprah Magazine

"Rich with history and mystical intrigue, Urquhart's American gothic is capable of sending chills across your skin one moment, then warming your heart the next...The story is as eerie as it is heartrending, weighing miracle against coincidence, deviation against sincerity, with the remnants of one rural family hanging in the balance. The Visionist will have you holding your breath until the final, magnificent revelation." - Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)"Rachel Urquhart's shatteringly original debut transports readers...The Visionist is told in three eloquent voices, Polly, Sister Charity and Simon Pryor, all blazingly alive, each walking a high-wire act of moral choices...writing so rich, so detailed, that you not only come to care for all the characters deeply, you also become so immersed in the world of the Shakers, you can almost feel the floor moving as they stomp in ecstatic dance. Part mystery and part thriller, The Visionist is also a shimmering exploration of identity." -San Francisco Chronicle

"A simmering, brooding novel...[Urquhart] delivers a book perfectly suited to curling up with by the hearth...Both the era and the culture are deeply explored, as is the psyche of a tormented girl for whom it seems there is no safe haven." - The New York Daily News

"Written in sparsely beautiful prose, Urquhart's novel is like reading Edith Wharton, the mood dark and subdued." - Curled Up With a Good Book

Brunonia Barry
PRAISE FOR THE VISIONIST:

"Gripping, profound, and beautifully written, The Visionist takes us to a world where faith and fear exist simultaneously and safety has a price. A remarkable exploration of love in all its forms with complex characters who linger far beyond the final pages."

--Cathy Buchanan
"The Visionist is both a haunting, beautifully imagined tale of lives devastated by cruelty and transformed by love, and a gorgeously evocative portrait of an 1840s Shaker settlement that is as startling as it is convincing."
--Katherine Howe
"Rachel Urquhart's transporting debut The Visionist lifts the veil on the intriguing, mystical past world of the Massachusetts Shakers. Equal parts exquisite historical coming-of-age story and harrowing crime procedural, The Visionist breathes life into desperate young orphan Polly Kimball, weaving a complex and compelling drama about one of American history's most elusive religious communities. Lovers of historical fiction and seekers after truth will devour The Visionist just like I did."
--Eowyn Ivey
"Rachel Urquhart paints a fascinating, complex portrait of Shaker culture in early America. An unexpected coming of age story, a suspenseful mystery. But what makes The Visionist particularly engaging is its thoughtful examination of the nature of good and evil, and our struggle to recognize it in ourselves and in others."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316228114
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 79,515
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachel Urquhart's work has been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, Elle, the New York Times, Vogue, and Spy, among other publications, and she is the author of three Chic Simple lifestyle books. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Rachel Urqhardt, Author of The Visionist

The wintery New England landscape plays a huge role in the book. It's almost a like a character. Why was that so important to you?

I feel—have always felt—incredibly connected to the New England landscape. Not so much the perfect fields and white clapboard houses of Eastern New England, but more the rocky, wind-swept, tight little valleys to the west. My uncle gave up his job in Manhattan to run full-time the dairy farm that my grandfather had established in Massachusetts, and so, as a child, I saw first-hand how impossibly difficult farming life can be. I remember winters so cold that he had to melt the ice in the cows' drinking troughs using giant electric coils. I remember him up at four every morning, milking, and then back at it again every evening. In between, I remember his fretting about the weather throughout the summer so that the hay wouldn't rot, and endlessly mucking out the barn, and looking for calves that had been born in the fields, and turning the ones that were breach, and on and on. He was an amazing person. It's really his New England that inspired me.

Mothers abound in your book. Can you talk about that?

Funnily enough, the whole mother thing was pointed out to me by a friend who read the novel in galleys. I was too close to the book to see many of the themes that were obvious to others. But my friend was right—the book is jam-packed. Mothers who abandon their children, mothers who are abandoned by their children, mothers who are unfit, mothers who seem weak but aren't, mothers who must function as surrogates because they are barren. And then, of course, the ultimate mother: the founder of Shaker religion, Mother Ann Lee. Despite her passionate disapproval of sex, when she was a young blacksmith's daughter living in Manchester, England, Mother Ann was married and gave birth to four children, all of whom died in infancy. Later, once she'd hit her stride here in America, she preached that all Shakers were the sons and daughters of Jesus Christ and a divine version of...Mother Ann Lee. So I guess motherhood was on my mind from the get-go.

The novel takes place at a time when America is shifting from an agrarian to an industrial economy. How does that change play into the story?

I'm not really sure how that came about. I just know that as I drove around the area of Massachusetts where I wrote most of the book, I was always passing these paper mills. And they made me think about how the landscape was really in flux around the time period I was writing about. I began to think about what this might have meant to poor farmers, and to unscrupulous land speculators, and to the Shakers themselves, who must have had to take in people who'd lost much of their family to jobs working in the big cities and in the mills and could no longer work their land. I suppose that in a novel where the characters are all challenged by their pasts to change profoundly, it felt right that the landscape and the society around them in would change, too.

For a religion that engineered its own oblivion by forbidding procreation amongst its adherents, Shakerism has had a remarkable influence on modern society. What are those influences and why do you think the Shakers have remained topical when most other fringe religions in America have fallen by the wayside?

There's a lot of emphasis placed on how "dark" my book is, but my admiration for the Shakers is huge. They have, most obviously, influenced design in contemporary times. After all, they were all about form following function long before the Modernists were. They were also extraordinarily innovative (their invention of the washing machine is but a single example) and forward thinking. They were ahead of their times in their ideas about medicine and diet. Whether or not they themselves had come up with it, they embraced any new program or machine that would help them in their work. They were very generous in their commitment to helping the poor. They were positively revolutionary in their ideas about women and equality. They were pacifists and abolitionists. And, however crazy some of their beliefs may seem, they were steadfast in their pursuit of perfection and, as a result, we are left with superbly crafted examples of their discipline and genius.

Polly and Sister Charity experience an intense friendship. Can you talk about that? What were you exploring when you were writing about their attachment?

A few people have asked me whether there are romantic attachments between any of the women in the book. The answer is complicated only in that there is real love and intimacy between Polly and Charity, but I never considered them to have sexual feelings for one another. What interested me is that, in this harsh, rigid, cold environment, they find each other and the discovery is almost electric. I think that many of us remember our first best friends, and how miraculous it felt to be so perfectly understood by another person, a person you never wanted to part with, a person you could laugh and share secrets with, a person you loved as you'd never loved before. There's certainly passion in all that, but for me, it exists in the girls' hearts and minds, not so much in their bodies.

Do you believe in Visionists? Is it possible that Polly and the other girls were capable of communicating on another level with a world most of us deny exists?

I struggle with this question even now, more than a decade after starting to write this book, which must mean that some part of me believes in the inexplicable. Of course, I have a very rational side. I've read all about contagious hysteria and could well imagine the Shaker Visionists fitting neatly into that theory. I've researched PTSD and can view Polly's hallucinations through that lens. And finally, as a mother, I am quite aware of a teenager's talent for manipulation. But most religions are full of myth and magic, and the reason for that, in part, is that there is simply so much we cannot know about our world. One of the things that most intrigued me about this particular time in Shaker history was that, in spite of their rigid practicality, through worship, they found a way to embrace what they couldn't explain. And I found much of that behavior magical. Very strange, yes, but magical. So I guess the simplest answer is that I both believe and don't believe, depending on the situation.

Who have you discovered lately?

I just started reading Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation and am finding myself in awe of the speed and precision of the storytelling. She's incredibly deft at pinpointing the details of a very specific time in life. It's exhilarating and more than a little uncomfortable when it hits close to home. And, because I read multiple books at one time, I'm also in the middle of Ann Patchett's This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I am a huge fan of hers. After I finished State of Wonder, I could not stop talking about it. She's the real thing. A friend recently leant me a fantastic book called The Shark Net, by an Australian writer named Robert Drewe. Maybe I'm the only person in the world who's never heard of him, but I thought it was a terrific novel, told a way that was funny and touching and terrifying all at the same time. And finally, though I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, when I was still working on my own book, it is a novel I've never been able to get out of my head. Obviously, I found the story riveting and magical, but there is something about the writing that is just so inspiring. I never read anything twice—I have too much catching up to do!—but that one's back on my night-table for a second look.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 4, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Anne Boling for Readers' Favorite This is a review

    Reviewed by Anne Boling for Readers' Favorite

    This is a review of the audio version of The Visionist: A Novel written by Rachel Urquhart. Polly Kimball’s father was cruel and violent. While her father slept, fifteen-year-old Polly loaded her mother and brother into the wagon. Polly took the lantern and went back into the house; she accidentally dropped the lantern, setting the house on fire. Polly knew she had just murdered her father. Her mother drove the wagon to the City of Hope, a Shaker village and left her children there for the community to care for. The members of the community believed that Polly was having visions through which she could contact their founder Ann Lee. Suddenly, Polly was drawing unwanted attention and was afraid her secret would be discovered.

    I was particularly interested in this book because I have visited a Shaker settlement and found the lifestyle interesting. The author, Rachel Urqhhart, has well researched the Shakers, their beliefs and culture. The Visionist is told through three points of view: Polly’s, Simon, an arsonist investigator, and Charity, a Shaker teen. The characters of Polly and Charity have great depth. My heart went out to Polly who believed herself to be a murderer and felt responsible for her brother's well-being. The Visionist is a nice mix of mystery and drama with a bit of mysticism thrown in. Rachel Urquhart is talented author and The Visionist has a fascinating plot. The audio format of this book has three readers: Ellen Archer, Peter Ganim, and Ali Ahn. The readers’ voices add depth and emotion to this outstanding book. No matter what format you prefer, this is a read you won’t want to miss.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2014

    Wonderful book!  Great read! Hard to imagine a book about Shaker

    Wonderful book!  Great read! Hard to imagine a book about Shakers being a page turner but it is. Beautifully writtentfu

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 19, 2014

    Disappointing

    I was quite disappointed in this book. I was anxious to read a book about Shakers because I've studied and read about them. This author made the Shakers appear stern, jealous, petty, and greedy. These were Christian people who chose to live their lives as they would in Heaven, with love, compassion and joy. I didn't see enough of that. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding about Shakerism and I found that in this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2014

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