by Anne Gracie, historical (2006)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 0-425-21052-9
The Perfect Stranger has the right ingredients for an enjoyable Regency historical romance but Anne Gracie is unable to sustain the momentum of the story for long. What starts out as a road trip adventure morphs into a perplexingly cartoonish Carebear-like adventures of our hero and heroine sowing good lessons and moral values. Frankly, it is boring to read about an obviously perfect hero and a somewhat imperfect heroine (but oh, the imperfections are only a way for the author to have the hero schooling the heroine on more good lessons and moral values!) because it soon becomes apparent that nothing but divine intervention will even cause a dent in the progress of our snogging duo here.
Faith Merridew, the last of the so-called "Virtue Sisters" yet to get her Prince Charming, gets hers here when she is abandoned by a foreigner she thought she was married to (lesson of the day: always trust good English stocks - breeding shows) only to realize that he was already married and her marriage with this jerk was only a sham. She fled the marriage only to realize that she has no place to go - she is too proud to crawl home and inflict her ruined state on her now blissfully wedded sisters, you see - and later, she flees a bunch of would-be rapists until she is rescued by our tortured ex-soldier hero Nicholas Blacklock. He is obliged to marry her for reasons best unsaid here (as my revealing them will spoil the story) as well as to protect her and she agrees, albeit with some hesitation. Those two and Nicholas' companions (a cheerleader benign older man and a gruff silent me-hate-women fellow as well as the hero's dog) travel all the way from Calais to England via several stops in France and Spain, following the hero's itinerary as he tries to put the demons in his past to rest as last.
I apologize for the vague plot synopsis but since the reader discovers the reasons for the hero's pilgrimage and the nature of the scars in his psyche along with the heroine as the story progresses, I cannot put down any more details or I will have spoiled the story considerably. Naturally Faith and Nicholas fall in love very easily despite their initial reservations about the conditions under which their marriage takes place. I like the love story aspect of The Perfect Stranger because it's very nicely developed. Some of the scenes where our main characters realize how much they care for the other person are pretty poetic. Even some of the more contrived scenes, like Nicholas waking up one morning to see Faith holding two babies in her arms (they belong to the lady whose place they are spending the night at) and is stunned, have me surprising myself when I feel slight moisture dripping down my cheeks.
The characters are the anchors that keep me emotionally invested in the characters. Nicholas could have been another stereotypical soldier/war hero character, but Ms Gracie instead makes Nicholas more than that: he's a tragic hero in the sense that he was forced to carry arms and kill when he is at heart a pacifist who is horrified at the thought of killing another living creature. It is understandable and even heartbreaking that he will be more affected by his experiences during the recent war than the heroine could even begin to suspect. It also justifies the story's eventual morphing from a historical romance into one with paranormal/mystical elements. Some readers may be put off by the abrupt appearance of the gypsies that will help Nicholas find salvation, I suspect, but the clues that this story will be heading in that direction are all over the story if one, armed with hindsight, goes back and rereads the story. Speaking for myself, I like the paranormal bent - it adds to the poignant resonance of Nicholas' tormented psyche and this way of healing him sure beats any cheap pop-psychology babbles any day.
Faith is an interesting heroine as well, especially from an author whose previous books push forward martyr heroines hell-bent on attaining stigmata at the expense of everything else. She isn't a martyr. She is actually a fascinating character, a mix of innocence, cynicism (she had a pretty bad past herself), and a welcome ability to learn and adapt when she's over her head in various situations in this story. Faith is a good foil to Nicholas because they end up bringing out the best from each other. The fact that she can think and make reasonable decisions of course are enough for me to want to grab a lampshade and party but the fact that she is actually interesting and likeable in the process have me thinking that it must have been my birthday or something.
Have I made the book sound most interesting to you? Maybe I should make it clear by this point that I feel that there are many interesting scenes in this story. But as a story on the whole, The Perfect Stranger bores me more often than not. The main problem here is that Ms Gracie is pretty blatant when it comes to shoving down her main characters' moral superiority to the point that she often sacrifices historical accuracy for the sake of propaganda. For example, our heroine, in a French inn, overhears two English snobs mocking Nicholas' disfigured manservant so she publicly berates those harpies, going as far as to tell them to respect the men who gave their lives to defend everything England holds dear. That's nice, but what has me rolling my eyes is that the French in the very inn, including the owners, cheer our heroine in a show of public applause after she has ended her tirade. This story is set in 1818. Since when do the French of that time become so compassionate about English soldiers going to war? I suppose the fact that our heroine once more manages to spread the fairy dust of love around the uncivilized wilderness outside England is more important, eh, Ms Gracie?
It's the same with the hero and the heroine many, many times throughout this book. The author has them performing feats of goodness and utter kindness to people who then adoringly proclaim what wonderful people our main characters are when the hero is not gently showing the heroine the right way to do things or when she is not showing him how wonderful her love is if he will only let her into his heart. These scenes are way too obvious to the point that I cringe whenever characters in this book start to speak adoringly of the hero or the heroine barely minutes into their first meeting with those two. What is this? A didactic story to teach the readers the way to live?
The last few chapters with the paranormal elements are what jolt me awake when I am nearly lulled into a bored stupor by the patronizingly wholesome adventures of Nicholas and Faith. These chapters remind me of the achingly poetic sad, sad aspects of poor blue Nicholas and I remember why I like him and Faith once more.
I like the characters of this book and I love some of the scenes in this book, but on the whole I find The Perfect Stranger too preachy and patronizing in tone for my liking. Because I really like pieces of this story while I could do without the end product when these pieces are put together, I'm torn about this book. I cannot bring myself to say that I dislike it, but I cannot bring myself to say that I find this book a most enjoyable read. Am I making sense here?
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