The Vanishing Point

The Vanishing Point

by Mary Sharratt

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In the tradition of Philippa Gregory’s smart, transporting fiction comes this tale of dark suspense, love, and betrayal, featuring two star-crossed sisters, one lost and the other searching.

Bright and inquisitive, Hannah Powers was raised by a father who treated her as if she were his son. While her beautiful and reckless sister, May, pushes the limits of propriety in their small English town, Hannah harbors her own secret: their father has given her an education forbidden to women. But Hannah’s secret serves her well when she journeys to colonial Maryland to reunite with May, who has been married off to a distant cousin after her sexual misadventures ruined her marriage prospects in England.

As Hannah searches for May, who has disappeared, she finds herself falling in love with her brother-in-law. Alone in a wild, uncultivated land where the old rules no longer apply, Hannah is freed from the constraints of the society that judged both her and May as dangerous—too smart, too fearless, and too hungry for life. But Hannah is also plagued by doubt, as her quest for answers to May’s fate grows ever more disturbing and tangled. This e-book includes a sample chapter of ILLUMINATIONS.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547630359
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 06/02/2006
Sold by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 335,614
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

MARY SHARRATT, the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, is on a mission to write strong women back into history. Her novels include Daughters of the Witching Hill, the Nautilus award-winning Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen,The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, and Ecstasy, about the life, loves, and music of Alma Mahler. She is an American who lives in Lancashire, England.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue Gloucestershire, England

Hannah Powers’s father taught her about the masters of painting and engraving, how Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci had transformed vision into a new geometry. He lectured Hannah on scale and proportion. The place where a ship was lost over the horizon was known as the vanishing point.
Their servant, Joan, was a woman of fifty-three years with ropy blue veins bulging out of her red hands. She taught Hannah and her sister, May, about another kind of vanishing, about the lost people who had once populated the West Country, indeed the entire island of Britain. Their stone arrows, green mounds, and dolmens still marked the land that had swallowed them. The first people.
Once, according to Joan, the faery folk had possessed physical bodies as plain and ordinary as anyone else’s. But over the centuries, they had become fey. Their bodies grew vaporous and insubstantial, visible only at twilight and in dreams. Fleeing church bells and the glint of iron, they shrank into their hollow hills.
“A mere optical illusion, Hannah,” her father told her, referring to the vanishing point on the horizon. “In truth, the ship does not disappear. The vessel is still there, even if we on the shore cannot see it.” So it transpired that both people and ships could become ghosts without ever dying or sinking beneath the waves.


1 The Dream of Comets May 1689 The morning the letter arrived, May Powers awoke with a premonition. Before she even opened her eyes, her heart was pounding and her throat was so tight she thought she might choke. The taste of iron filled her mouth. Throwing the bedclothes aside, she told herself not to be silly. She laced her bodice over her shift and stepped into her skirt. After pinning her hair into a coil, she descended the narrow staircase to the kitchen to help Joan prepare breakfast. Father and Hannah were in the front room murmuring over his pile of books. May listened to them recite the Latin names of apothecary herbs.
The morning passed as uneventfully as any other, with wool to spin and seams to stitch. Just past midmorning, Hannah left for the market with Joan. In the garden, Father picked betony and woodruff. It was the end of May, the lovely month after which her departed mother had named her. The weather being fine, she took her spinning wheel to the front of the house so that she might look out on the village green, the sheep that grazed there, and the hills beyond. That morning her eyes were too restless to settle on the village; they kept wandering off toward the horizon.
When the rider trotted up to the garden gate on his mud-spattered cob, she struggled to her feet as though waking from a dream. “Is this the house of Daniel Powers?” he asked.
May nodded, and the milky-faced youth leaned from his saddle and thrust a letter at her — a piece of folded paper, sealed with wax and marked by the many hands it had passed through until it had reached hers.
“The letter did come all the way from America,” said the rider, too imperious to even flirt.
A peculiar tingling gripped her. She remembered the dream she’d had just before waking — a dream of her father showing her comets through his telescope. As she peered through that lens, the sky filled with shooting flames.
The letter was addressed to her father, Daniel Powers, Physician. She read the name of the one who had sent it — Nathan Washbrook, her father’s distant cousin who had crossed the waters to Maryland.
“Father!” she cried, racing to the back of the house where he was gathering strawberry leaves. “Father, look!” A fever gripped her, the blood running in her veins like hot wine as she broke the seal herself, not waiting for her father’s permission.
Under the hawthorn tree, beneath that canopy of foamy white flowers, she read the letter aloud. When she handed the letter to him, he nodded, as if he already knew its message. Father and daughter were silent, but the words May had read remained in the air, buzzing around them like flies.
“What think you of the letter, May?” She plucked a handful of hawthorn flowers, crushing them in her left hand while holding the letter in her right.
Father wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “My dear, can you forgive me? A year ago, I took the liberty of writing to our cousin Nathan and telling him you were still unwed. In faith, it was I who planted the idea in his head.” Had Joan and Hannah been present, there would have been hysterics. The garden would have rung with shouting, curses, and tears. But between May and her father there was neither discussion nor debate. Her fingers went limp, hawthorn flowers and letter falling to the grass. Father took her hannd.
“Could you consent?” “You might have told me this was coming,” she said. Then, looking into his eyes, she read his will. He had been praying for this oooooffer, this miracle, to take the burden of her future off his hands.
Females are scarce in the Colonies, Cousin Nathan had written.
My Son needs a Wife. He is a healthy young Man of eighteen Years. I would rejoice to have your eldest Daughter May for his Bride. In Truth, I care not that your Daughter is without Dowry. I have Wealth enough and have already paid eight Hogs Head Barrels of Tobacco to the Ship Captain to assure her speedy Passage. Please be good as your Word and see that she sails out on the Cornucopia in August.
He expected her to leave already in August, only two months away? And offering her a boy of eighteen as a bridegroom! She was twenty- two. May nearly laughed aloud. Aware of her father’s somber gaze, she sobered and considered. On the one hand, what choice did she have if she wanted to save herself and her sister from penury? Though her father was a doctor of physick, making money had never been one of his talents. In recent years, his health had gone into decline. There was no son to carry on his business. When he died, she and her sister would have to sell his globe and telescope, his skeleton and surgical instruments, his books and diagrams of human organs. Even this house would be taken from them, for they merely rented it. She and Hannah would be dowerless spinsters, wards of the parish. After what she had done to disgrace herself, ruining her chances of honorable marriage, how dare she refuse? She was twenty-two, her sister only fifteen. The burden of securing their future fell upon her.
On the other hand, what an adventure! She half believed the letter had come to answer her own prayers of deliverance. When she was a young girl, long before she had discovered the lusts that plagued her body and spoiled her reputation, she had dreamt of setting sail for unknown worlds. Once she had declared to her sister, “If I were a boy, I would run away to sea.” Only a roving young man could be as free as she longed to be. When she closed her eyes, she saw not a young bridegroom but herself at the bow of a ship.
Leaving Father alone in the garden, his query unanswered, she ran to his study, took the globe from its place on the shelf, and spun it until her eyes blurred. He found her there, twirling his prized globe. She laughed uncontrollably, her whole body shaking. Laughter was her weakness. May laughed the way other girls cried. Once she got started, there was no stopping her. Turning to her father, she laughed in his face. Without a shred of submission or obedience, she told him, “Yes, Father. Yes, I consent.”

“Fancy his name being Washbrook,” May said, trying to make light of it in the face of Joan’s glowering. “Is he descended from a line of launderers?” “I have half a mind to throttle that father of yours,” said Joan.
“You know nothing of that boy.” May, Joan, and Hannah circled around a walnut chest carved with roses and thorns, which had belonged to the girls’ mother, her maiden name having been Hannah Thorn. Once May had believed that the flowering white thorn bushes were named after her. May had lost her mother at the age of seven, so her memories of her were fleeting. Mostly she recalled her mother’s cheer and wit, how she could draw Father out of his dreariness and make him smile. Father lived in a world of sickness, death, and bleeding that terrified May. She despised the skeleton in his study, the preserved calf heart in the glass jar. What good was her father’s medicine if he had not been able to keep her mother alive?
As the eldest, May would inherit her mother’s trunk and its contents. Joan dug out the clothes and linens, the tiny infant clothes and christening gown, and laid them out on the freshly swept floor. Every article would be washed and ironed before it crossed the ocean with May. At the bottom of the chest was a woman’s shift and nightcap, but the shift was an odd one, being slit in front up to the waist. When Joan held it up to the light and shook out the dust, the sight was so lewd that May had to laugh, her fist covering her mouth.
“Our mother wore such a shift?” Joan’s reply was brusque. “It was her lying-in gown. The gown she bore you in.” The linen was so yellowed with age, it looked as if it had been handed down from their great-grandmother. Hannah went white in the face; her birth had caused their mother’s death. As long as May lived, she would never forget the sight of Mother’s drained face, mouth frozen open but silenced forever while the infant shrieked and shrieked. Hannah had been so frail, everyone feared she would follow her mother to the grave. When May looked back, she suspected the only thing that prevented Father from going insane from grief was his struggle to keep the baby alive. Ever after, he had harbored a special tenderness for Hannah that he had never shown for May.
It hadn’t helped that May so resembled her mother. The likeness had only grown stronger when she became a woman. Joan said that even her laughter sounded like Mother’s, her lightness and humor, her refusal to dwell on gloomy things. While Mother was yet alive, Father used to sit May on his lap. He taught her to read, do figures, and showed her shooting stars through his telescope. But after Mother’s death, he had withdrawn from her, leaving her upbringing to Joan. Her resemblance to Mother had only caused him pain. If May allowed self-pity to creep into her head, she could easily convince herself that she was twice as orphaned as Hannah, but she brushed such thoughts aside. In August she would be leaving home forever; she refused to allow jealousy or resentment to cloud her final days with her family. Before anyone could notice her silence and ask what was on her mind, she folded the birthing gown and laid it on the floor with the other things.
Joan gripped her shoulder. “And on your wedding night, what will happen when he discovers you are no maid?” At this, Hannah crept out of the room. May looked into Joan’s eyes without fl inching. “You know as well as I,” she said, “that even the most hardened rake cannot tell a maiden from a whore if she holds herself tight enough.” She swallowed and tried to smile. “If he goes looking for blood, I shall prick my finger with a needle.” Then she shook her head. “Oh, Joan, I don’t think Father kept my history secret from them. I think they know already what kind of girl I am.” Before Joan could berate her any more, May embraced the older woman, who wept noisily in her arms.
“Your own father is shunting you off for a pile of tobacco!” “Hush,” May whispered. “I go freely. I have chosen this.”

Copyright © 2006 by Mary Sharratt. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Vanishing Point 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Two words... Loved it. This book is a page turner, I couldn't put it down. Then, finally the end came and I just sat there wanting more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Keep you wanting more,very powerful in the power of love and faith. Let you guess the end.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I read it in 3 days, an utter page turner. Though I am upset about the ending (Dont want to ruin anything) But i would definately recommend this book if you are a Philippa GRegory fan
Guest More than 1 year ago
THE VANISHING POINT is the best novel I have read this year--a literary page turner with complex characters and a fantastically atmospheric setting the wildnerness of colonial Maryland. It's romantic, suspenseful, heartbreaking, and the ending is absolutely transcendent. I loved all the gritty details, such as the lives of the indentured servants, and I especially loved Adele, the shadow catcher's daughter from Martinique. All these historical details woven together made for an unforgettable read. I am recommending this one to my book group and all my friends. A lot novels these days are a chore to read, but this one sweeps you away and you're immediately immersed in its world. It's a beautiful, haunting story that kept me thinking and reflecting after I read the last page. Hannah, May, and Gabriel will stay with me for a long time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tragic and sweet.....great read. I loved this book. It has been such a long time since I found a book that kept me reading all night and on my breaks at work. This book had it all. I could not wait to find out the next clue to it all. And sooo sad!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is a fantastic blend of thriller, historical fiction, the supernatural, and great storytelling. The characters are vibrant, sympathetic, and unforgetable. I was deeply drawn into their lives. You also learn a lot of history in the colonial American period. The details were so rich, I thought I was there.
Ames3473 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I didn't want to put it down! It is full of sadness & the ending is quite sad, but the book itself is full of mystery & makes u want to read more & more! Would definitely recommend!
quantumbutterfly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hannah Powers is a young English woman whose father has trained her in his medical practice. Her sister May enjoys the company of many different men, and is eventually betrothed to the son of a distant relative in the Virginia colony. Eventually May's letters stop, and Hannah finds herself en route after her sister. When she makes her way to where her sister was supposed to live, she finds her husband Gabriel, a run down house, and no sign of May whatsoever.Hannah soon discovers that her beloved sister is dead... and she has fallen in love with her brother in law. However, May's spectre never leaves them. Hannah continues to question what happened to May and will not stop until she knows for certain.I loved the touches of folk magic Sharratt added to the story along with the herbalism. One big historical error though, binominal nomenclature (aka the Latin name for living things) was not developed until the 18th century. I didn't mind though. The story is very nicely written and paced. Certainly worth your time, and I cannot wait to get hold of more of Sharratt's work.
CatieN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
1670s America was an untamed wilderness, and May and Hannah Powers both find that out the hard way when May sails to the Maryland area to marry a distant cousin, having ruined her good name in England because of her sexual escapades, and Hannah follows 2 years later. This is a beautifully written book with enough suspense, love, betrayal, and revenge to keep you on the edge of your seat. Good attention to detail as far as the time period and a great ending (but not necessarily the ending you want). Highly recommended to all fans of historical fiction.
davidabrams on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In her latest novel, The Vanishing Point, Mary Sharratt transports readers back to Colonial America, a land filled with impenetrable forests, grim foreboding and long distances between neighbors. It is the wilderness within the hearts of the characters, however, that proves to be the most dangerous. As she did in her previous book, The Real Minerva, Sharratt brings the hair-trigger emotions of her characters to the surface as they play out the drama against the backdrop of history. In The Real Minerva, it was 1920s Minnesota; here, we¿re taken to Maryland in the 1690s. Hannah Powers arrives on the wild, rocky shores of the Maryland colony, hoping to join her older sister May and her new husband Gabriel. May had left Hannah and their father, a surgeon, back in England several years earlier in the wake of scandal. We learn that May ¿had started with the boys¿ when she was fifteen. ¿In the beginning, she had tried to be a decent girl, contenting herself with kisses, sweet words, and secret glances. But her hunger mounted¿¿ Before she can bring disgrace on the family name, May¿s father sends her to America as a sort of mail-order bride for a distant cousin. Years later, Hannah arrives and makes her way up-river to the isolated homestead where May and Gabriel had settled. But before she can drag her trunks up the riverbank, she¿s greeted with terrible news from Gabriel: two years earlier, May died in childbirth and the farm has fallen into ruins. At first, Gabriel is hostile and guarded, carrying a load of bitterness toward the rest of the world, but it¿s not long before Hannah penetrates his stoic, buckskinned exterior. A few chapters later, they¿re embracing and tumbling around in animal skins on the cabin floor. Though it¿s predictable and a bit quick to develop, the romance between Gabriel and Hannah is genuinely felt by the reader. As the novel progresses, it becomes the source of tension that keeps the pages turning: even as Hannah falls in love with her brother-in-law, she increasingly suspects him of murdering her sister. Sharratt limits most of the novel¿s action to the isolated cabin, forcing us to feel the loneliness, the danger of the wilderness, the gritty way of life. The sex is dirty (in the unwashed sense), yet erotic; the mystery of the missing woman constantly haunts the edge of the pages; and the violence of mankind is always just beyond the threshold. The strength of the novel lies in its details¿food, clothing, gardening, medicinal herbs and ocean crossings are well-researched; a description of surgery to remove a kidney stone is especially vivid. I¿ve no idea how accurate Sharratt¿s descriptions are, but the important thing is she convinces me and integrates the research seamlessly into the story. The Vanishing Point has the hallmarks of a successful historical novel¿it¿s engaging, authentic in its period details, sexy when it needs to be, and is populated with characters the reader cares about. Despite its length, The Vanishing Point quickly becomes a page-turner and its flaws¿primarily clunky dialogue which teeters between Restoration England and 20th-century TV soap opera¿are easy to forgive once you get caught up in the story. Hannah grows stronger as the story moves along (it¿s no coincidence that her last name is Powers). Sharratt has endowed her with the trademarks of a spirited, educated woman who can read and write in English and Latin, knows algebra, geometry, botany, and astronomy, and wields a surgeon¿s knife with precision. Years before the American Revolution, Hannah takes her own stance of independence. She¿s a formidable, and sometimes threatening, match for Gabriel as she plays detective in the mystery of her sister¿s death. The solution, not fully revealed until the book¿s closing pages, is as surprising as it is satisfying. In her Afterword, Sharratt tells us the seeds of The Vanishing Point were planted 20 years ago when she took part in a University of Minnesota seminar called ¿The Making
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked the part where May would help her father with his patients as he got older.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a tragic tale about love and how lack of faith can destroy all. Very haunting. If you want a happy ending, this book won't give it to you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
OHARADN More than 1 year ago
Well written. Intriguing. Heart-breaking, I couldn't help but cry through the last few pages. Great plot & character development. I liked the authors use of first person accounting for all 3 of the main characters, in alternating chapters to see the truth unfold. I look forward to reading more from this author. I devoured this book in 2 days! I was totally invested in what would become of Hannah & Gabriel & what really happened to May.
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kenziejb More than 1 year ago
Imagine being a woman in the early American Colonies. Life was hard and finding an identity was next to impossible. This is the story of two very different sisters who attempt to give reason to thier choosen lives and who struggle with the social norms of the time. This is an easy and enjoyable read. I found myself getting attached to characters I normally would not identify with and wondering how I would have fared in this setting. A must read for anyone struggling to find thier identity or for anyone looking for a unique read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bonnie824 More than 1 year ago
The characters are unusual and three dimensional. The plot is not truly original, but it is original for a historical set in the 17th century. It is easy to read, enjoyable, and will stay on my keeper bookshelf.
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