Helen Keller In Love

by Rosie Sultan

(Vking, $26.95, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Rosie Sultan is perhaps not well-known to most readers, but this novel, based on true events from the life of the adult Helen Keller, is likely to change that. Sultan is a graduate of Goddard College and has won a PEN Discovery Award for fiction. She has taught writing at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts and Suffolk University and lives with her husband and son in Brookline, Mass.

What is this book about?

Say the name Helen Keller and most people think of the deaf, blind and silent child in “The Miracle Worker” who is taught by a passionate teacher to communicate through signing. But there is far, far more to her story. Using accounts of Keller’s life from biographies and drawing on her letters and speeches, Sultan gives us Keller in full, a woman who opposed World War I, supported full rights for women and was a Socialist. And she tells the story of Keller’s love for Peter Fagan, who succeeded her teacher Annie Sullivan, who had contracted tuberculosis. Fagan and Keller fell in love, much to the dismay of Sullivan and Keller’s family, who misguidedly wished to keep her as a kind of virginal icon. Keller herself rarely wrote or spoke about her affair with Fagan and the turmoil it created. In this novel, Sultan does it for her.

Why you’ll like it:

“The Miracle Worker” opened a door for us into Helen Keller’s life, much as Annie Sullivan opened her limited existence to a far wider world. Sultan’s novel takes us deeper into Keller’s personal history, presenting her not just as a heroine and role model but as a real woman, full of passion and sensuality and striving for as full a life as was possible. Sultan’s version of Keller’s story, supported by extensive research, may surprise casual admirers of this most unusual woman, but it is sure to captivate readers.

What others are saying:

“Ambitious,” says The Boston Globe. “Sultan’s sensibility is consistently contemporary, a wise choice given Keller’s distinctly modern views. An advocate for women’s rights, an unapologetic socialist and fierce opponent to World War I, Keller exposed and challenged oppression and prejudice in all its myriad forms. Her voice in this novel is evocative of any current celebrity’s. She feels imprisoned by her reputation and her fans’ expectations of her, weary of being the meal ticket for her family, and harassed by the press. As much as she loves and needs Annie, she also chafes at their interdependence. And above all, she is unashamed of her own sexuality, eager to express it, and resentful of her mother and sister’s determination to keep her pure and caged within the confines of propriety. . . . Sultan does a fine job of demonstrating how Keller navigates the world with just three senses.”

“Going well beyond Keller’s ‘Miracle Worker’ days . . . Sultan convincingly imagines that this much-admired if oversimplified icon wanted nothing more than to be treated like a woman,” says Booklist.

“Eye-opening and thoroughly involving . . . This well-written novel will appeal to those who enjoy women’s fiction as well as readers of historical and biographical fiction. A thoroughly enjoyable read that should entice many to seek out one of the biographies Sultan recommends in an afterword,” says Library Journal.

“Debut novelist Rosie Sultan’s “Helen Keller in Love” spins a tale of forbidden love, invoking scents, textures and tastes on every page to show how Helen ‘saw’ the world. She grounds the story in well-known incidents from Helen’s childhood, but draws on later biographies, speeches and letters to show Helen as a woman, intelligent and determined but forced by her handicaps to be dependent on her family and employees. . . . Sultan skillfully expresses Helen’s main frustrations: at the public for refusing to take her seriously when she speaks on political issues unrelated to blindness, and at her family and friends for refusing to see her as a grown woman, with a woman’s desires. “Helen Keller in Love” holds readers’ attention with a fresh depiction of a woman famous for overcoming her physical handicaps, forced to fight for her right to love,” says Katie Noah Gibson, author of “Shelf Awareness.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has it now on its new books shelf.

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