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Reviewed by Ankita Shukla for Readers' Favorite
This is the first book of Debora Swift that I have come across and, trust me, it is not going to be the last. A Plague on Mr Pepys is set in 17th century London, a time of plague and war. However, the world of Bess Bagwell is unaffected by these tragedies. The only thing that concerns her is ridding herself of the poverty that she has known way too well in the past. She has high hopes for her husband, Will Bagwell. He is an excellent carpenter and she knows that if more affluent people could see his work, he would be earning according to his true potential. She is a headstrong woman whose voice will not be ignored. Therefore, when she insisted that they move to a bigger house, Will could not deny her wishes in spite of his unwillingness to take a loan. Bess was ecstatic as she thought this move guaranteed their good fortune. However, Will's cousin, Jack Sutherland, kept borrowing money from them -- the money that they themselves were having a hard time earning. When things did not materialize as per Bess' liking, she thought it best to meddle a bit to turn things around. This meddling got out of hand when Mr. Pepys noticed the beautiful Bess and suggested an arrangement in exchange for offering Will a job. As much as she despised his offer, can beggars be choosers?
If your past was filled with haunting memories of poverty and only now you have tasted a little bit of luxury, can you bear the thought of going back to that life? When you are desperate to move up in society but money is always tight, can you be bothered by a moral compass? Bess is determined to improve her living conditions and when she notices that her husband is not pushing hard enough, she has no choice but to poke her nose where it does not belong. Even at a time when women were not supposed to interfere in men's business and were to follow a husband's wishes, Bess openly expresses herself, no matter who her audience is. There is a fire inside her that both impresses and challenges Will, Jack, and Mr. Pepys. There is an age-old debate of right vs wrong but while reading A Plague on Mr Pepys, the lines that seemed so clear in my head blurred. According to social rules, there was something very wrong with Mr. Pepys' proposition, yet when Bess considered his offer, I could not put her at fault. Did she have any other choices? Similarly, although Will is a good guy, his impractical decisions made me want to shake him.
Other than the moral dilemma of the characters, one thing that will remain with me for a long time is the naked presentation of the effects of the plague on society. On one hand, the suffering of people was breaking everyone's hearts, on the other hand, there was a set of people who were making money from their misery. By selling false potions and such, these heartless people were putting humanity to shame. Deborah Swift has picked up a part of Mr. Pepys' diary, mixed it with her creative imagination, brought the characters to life, and written a masterpiece. This is a book that will force you to ponder many aspects of the 17th century. It is a bit dark since several serious issues are examined throughout the story; however, the execution is so perfect that I could not put it down before knowing if everything ended well for Bess and Will. I would recommend this book to readers who like learning certain facts about history presented in an entertaining plot.