I was initially fascinated by the plot synopsis for this book, the opportunity to read historical romance in a setting that was unfamiliar, and the characters. But the book suffers from such poor editing that I couldn't finish it, and had to stop reading.
This is the synopsis, provided by the author:
Set in Gilded Age America, a young woman must choose between circumstance and destiny. Orphaned as small children, Sterling Redmond and her older sister Charlotte are raised by their grandfather at the family’s Maryland country estate of Northampton. Charlotte blossoms into a famed Baltimore beauty, but Sterling is more interested in books and horseback riding than feminine pursuits. Concerned that her niece will never find a suitable husband among the local Baltimore gentry, Madame De Chant whisks Sterling away to Belle Époque Paris in search of a gentleman who can understand her. In their absence, Nicholas Pembroke, the son of an English earl, takes up residence in the manor bordering Northampton. When Sterling and her aunt return to America for Charlotte’s wedding, Sterling finds that her perfect husband is living right next door. But there is a problem: he is already engaged to marry Charlotte.
My problem with this book is very simple: I had no freaking idea who was telling me the story in the book.
The point of view bounces from the heroine to all-and-I-do-mean-ALL-knowing omniscient narrator, sometimes in the middle of the paragraph, that I had to reread paragraphs two or three times to figure out what had just happened.
I first noticed the problem in chapter one, when Nicolas, the hero, is watching Sterling enter the room.
She was a simple beauty, not beautiful the way her sister was, but with a quiet, thoughtful face of porcelain skin and intelligent dark eyes full of natural curiosity and easy humor. Her strawberry blonde hair was pulled back in a soft chignon, held in place with a tortoise-shell comb. She wore a gown of cream faille with purple satin stripes that was impeccably tailored to her figure, and the lack of frills, bows and flounces only served to enhance the luminous effect the fashion had upon her. In her right hand, she held an embroidered black silk fan which she opened mischievously as she approached her grandfather, beaming a smile at him. Two years spent in Europe had clearly transformed the younger Miss Redmond into something unrecognizable to her sister Charlotte.
Nicholas glanced over at Charlotte now. She had told him the reunion of her family was a joyous occasion, but it was clear from her expression that it was not.
So Nicholas is cataloging Sterling's appearance, and instantly knows what Charlotte's reaction is before he looks at her. My first note in this book: “Whose pov is this?”
Then came chapter two, when Sterling takes her horse for a ride:
Leaving the stables, she crossed the lane and passed the carriage house, where a small buggy was outside being repaired. The laborers smiled and nodded their heads respectfully to her. She ignored the fields to the east, used for the mares visiting for stud services from Northampton’s prized racing stallions, and instead headed north toward the home farm. After years of riding in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, it felt liberating to have the vast expanse of her family’s property to roam, and the gray seemed eager for the exercise. She passed the blacksmith shop and the dairy, and then turned west towards the overseer’s house. Her grandfather’s farm manager was already hard at work out on the estate, but his wife stepped out onto the covered porch of her residence and waved to Sterling. As Nicholas had seen the day before, the younger Miss Redmond was easy to spot from a distance because of her strawberry hair. She passed the stone structure of the mule barn and turned south again toward Towsontown, past the quarters of the tenant farmers and beyond to the grassy meadows.
I was once a stagehand for a production of Thornton Wilder's Pullman Car Hiawatha, a one-act in which the cast, which was very small in that production, played people on a train car, the hours of the day, forces of weather, the towns the train passes through, angels, and the planets in orbit. This play confused the crap out of me for most of the two weeks that it ran. The woman who plays a cranky old lady turns into a planet, and Saturn, if I recall, made very weird noises. I had to watch the play several times before I appreciated it and figured out that the point of view stretches from the mundane interactions of people to the movement of the planets, and snaps back to the present at the end.
This scene with Sterling made me think of the increasingly broadening perspective from Hiawatha, and how the perspective and point of view gets bigger and bigger and more inclusive, and then zooms back into the point of view of the people in the train. So here's Sterling, Sterling's horse's route, people Sterling sees, and then the narration jumps into Nicholas' point of view about her hair, then back to Sterling. The minute I read about Nicholas, I backed up a page to make sure I hadn't missed him entering the scene, or riding his own horse somewhere nearby. Or, I thought, maybe the jumping narration has a pattern or significance I was missing, and that pattern would be clearer once I read more. Ultimately, I couldn't find any reason for the abrupt jumps in perspective.
As Nicholas, who is not in this scene yet, had noticed, Sterling's hair is strawberry blonde, and this fact is mentioned more than five times in the intial chapters.
The switcheroo point of view continued. This is from chapter two, when Sterling takes refuge at Nicholas' house after she's caught in a sudden rainstorm:
She threw him the reins and bounded onto the porch and through the open door into the foyer, only to be met by the butler. Sterling came to a very sudden halt when she encountered him commanding the entrance to the villa.
He was a small slender man, impeccably dressed and staring back at her with penetrating eyes that missed nothing. He wore wire-rimmed spectacles and had a slight widow’s peak to his gray-flecked dark hair. She had never laid eyes on him before, but when he spoke, she heard the accent and knew the man must be Pembroke’s manservant. He emanated calm and order. Wolffe had been with Nicholas for more than ten years and had traveled with his master all around the world and now to America, where he found the weather either too hot or too cold and the informality of the black servants a little disconcerting. He wished her good day and waited for her to speak. The rain suddenly increased its intensity and they both turned their heads to stare outside at it.
How does she know about Wolffe if she's never laid eyes on him before? How does she know all that? Did someone tell her previously? Maybe there are two narrators. Maybe Sterling is psychic.
Later, Sterling awaits Nicholas in the parlor, and Sterling notices all the pieces of whatnot collected in the room:
She was transported to another place by Iznik tiles, brightly painted papyrus scrolls, hand-carved African figurines, and Egyptian alabaster statues. This was someone’s lair, a storehouse of treasures gathered from around the world. She moved about the room, gazing at objects, touching them and pondering over the story behind them. Large potted palms infused the room with oxygen. The rain continued to pour.
“Infused the room with oxygen?”
I kept going because I wanted to find the story that had tempted me in the summary, but found myself scanning pages and catching the moments when the point of view would switch for one line or two, then switch back to the original perspective. It was exhausting mentally trying to figure out who was telling this story. My most common note in the text: “Who is the narrator?”
Plus, the narration, when it switches perspectives or informs the reader everything about everyone, is prone to infodumpery and stock characterization. The British servant is aloof and distant; the many local servants, who are all described as “black,” are the happiest servants in the history of the known universe, and, as Nicholas noted, “The servants here had a habit of breaking suddenly into colloquial banter with the family in a way that would have never happened at Darwell, his family home in England. Nicholas found it unexpectedly pleasing.”
The dialogue is not bad, and I liked reading when the characters spoke to one another, but the long paragraphs of head-hopping narration were so distracting and tiresome to read, they overpowered my interest in the characters, or what would ultimately happen to them.