Arabella and her friend Daughtie flee their commune life with the Shakers in Canterbury, and soon arrive in Lowell and find work as "mill girls." Through Arabella’s life we learn much about the Shakers cult: a feminist belief system based on a religious notion (a God-head that has both father and mother); the repudiation of marriage and normal family roles – everyone is equal to each other, all brothers and sisters. The Shakers also practiced "dancing in the spirit," and took in charity cases such as abandoned, orphan children.
As with many of today’s historical novels, the main female character is decidedly feminist, and zealous for women’s equal rights (in this case, especially education and access to a library) – a notion seemingly befitting more modern times than women of the 1830s. Yet the Shaker background fits and explains Arabella’s more socially radical ideas better than many others of this genre. Arabella and John Farnsworth’s antagonistic nephew Taylor Manning provide most of the relational turmoil of this novel – though Taylor seems much less likeable than Matthew Cheever. Still, Arabella and Taylor’s differences (in worldviews) combined with their independent, fighting natures, provide great conflict and interest. Like many real-life young people, the two attracted characters fight like "cats and dogs" at times, but later realize their true feelings.
A Fragile Design has less commentary on the actual working conditions, with more focus on life in the community as a whole. Indeed, sometimes during the reading it seemed that the characters had plenty of free time on their hands. Certainly many of the characters – all except Arabella and Daughtie, and the other boarding girls (who are really in the background, minor characters) – don’t even work in the mills. The many subplots involving these other characters – including a new Irish stonemason, Liam Donohue, hired to build a new Catholic church – keep the overall story going.
Historical characters include Kirk Boott, again in interactions with Matthew Cheever and the community, though to a lesser extent than the first novel. Another minor, but historical, character is Reverend Edson, Boott’s appointed minister for the St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – another true part of this historical fiction story.
A Fragile Design stands mostly on its own, as a story that could be read without knowledge of its predecessor. Many of the characters, though, are familiar from the previous novel. Addie is still running the boardinghouse, still involved with John Farnsworth. Matthew and Lilly Cheever, the main characters from the first novel, are also prominent in the town – and now expecting their first child. The old villain William Thurston is back, to stir up new trouble in the Irish "Acre."
A Fragile Design successfully develops a new plot, and many subplots, yet manages to wrap all the loose ends from this and the previous book, for an exciting and page-turning story, with great mystery and suspense building towards the conclusion. So far, the "Bells of Lowell" series is a good read, with exciting stories amidst this turbulent historical era, pre-Civil War New England, and the many changes brought on by the industrial revolution. A third novel in the series, These Tangled Threads, has since been released, with more emphasis on Arabella’s friend Daughtie.