Waltz with a Stranger

Pamela Sherwood
December 2012, European Historical Romance (1890s England)
Sourcebooks Casablanca, $6.99, 448 pages, Amazon ASIN 1402273223

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Subtle

Going into it, I knew that Waltz With a Stranger had been inspired by Edith Wharton, that it was set in the 1890s, that it featured American heiresses husband-hunting in Europe - all things that would make a story sound promising to me. And it really does have its good points. However, the story also has a lukewarm quality to it that fails to fully engage the reader. The story seems downright lovely at times, but so much of that loveliness fails to live on in the memory and that makes the reading experience only a bit better than the average.

Aurelia and Amelia Newbold, twin heiresses from New York, have done surprisingly well at their London debuts. Even the more stodgy aristocrats seem charmed by their vivacity and by Amelia's beauty. The twins are identical, but a riding accident left Aurelia with a large facial scar, a limp, and an utterly devastated self-confidence. While hiding away in the shadows at a ball, Aurelia meets James Trevenan and the two share a thrilling waltz. Afterward, something about the magic of that moment allows Aurelia to start dreaming and hoping again. She agrees to go abroad to seek treatment in a spa and after hard work and what we would now call physical therapy, she returns to English society a year later.

Upon her return, Aurelia finds her twin engaged - to the very same James Trevenan with whom she shared the unforgettable waltz. If this were a more cliched story, Amelia would be the evil twin and all kinds of intrigue would ensue as the good twin tries to get her man. But she's not. As it turns out, Amelia and Aurelia are devoted to one another. In fact, the entire Newbold family is quite close-knit - a nice change to see in romance. I can't remember the last time I met a family in historical romance where all the parents and children were alive and reasonably untortured. The Newbolds are sweet, and their family is one of the good parts of this book.

I suspect if one were to read this book as straight romance, that reader would find herself frustrated no end. There are romantic threads running all through the novel and certainly the love story (stories, actually, for we get more than one) is integral to the plot. However, there is a lot more going on in this book and it's quite a big story, as one can tell from the page count. The story goes from London to Cornwall, and features the families of both James and Aurelia. We really get to learn a lot not just about James, Aurelia, and Amelia as they move from London to James' home in Cornwall, but also about the people important to them. There's a subplot involving tensions between James and some of his extended family, as well as a mystery surrounding what really happened to the cousin whose death led to James inheriting his title.

As for the main characters, they do have their moments. Amelia can seem a bit bland on occasion, but she is truly fond of her sister and she's not an unlikeable character. Aurelia is a bit more interesting. Though she suffers at time from a lack of confidence related to her looks after the accident, she shows some real strength in her character development over the course of the story. I would have liked to see more of her time away at the spa, but even after her return, she still has her moments. I particularly liked a dinner scene in Cornwall where she faced down James' catty cousin.

This all sounds like a fun read, and at times it is. However, I have to admit that I often found myself putting this book down and picking it back up again. There's nothing jarringly awful in this novel, but it doesn't truly engage the emotions either. Something about the inner lives of the various characters in this book just felt muted and for that reason, while I enjoyed individual scenes in the book, overall it left me cold. In addition, I suspect most readers will figure out the mystery well before the characters do. Because of this, I have to admit that the windup to the Big Reveal dragged a bit much for me.

While I admire the author for avoiding overused cliches and melodrama in her plotting, I do wish that Waltz With a Stranger engaged the reader a little bit more. I thought a lot about this book after I read it, and aside from the overly obvious mystery, I really don't think the plotting is the problem. It seems to be a deeper characterization issue; Aurelia, James and company do show some development as characters but they still don't reach the level of feeling like real, three-dimensional people. And without that, I just cannot quite recommend this book.

-- Lynn Spencer

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