Book Review

Waltz With a Stranger by Pamela Sherwood


Title: Waltz with a Stranger
Author: Pamela Sherwood
Publication Info: Sourcebooks 2012
ISBN: 9781402273223
Genre: Historical: European

Waltz With A Stranger by Pamela Sherwood - the hero has his shirt unbuttoned in a ballroom and is dancing with a woman who I SWEAR looks a LOT like Britney Spears

I first learned about this book over the summer – at RWA, in fact – when I had breakfast with Danielle Jackson and Beth Caskie, publicists at Sourcebooks. They were both very excited about this book. (Aside: is it me, or does the woman in the cover look a LOT like Britney Spears?)


I wish my reaction had been similar, as the premise gave me all the curiosity and eagerness to read it: Aurelia Newbold is a very wealthy American heiress, and a formerly-identical twin. Due to a carriage accident, she has a limp and a scar on her face, and during her season in London, her sister Amy is the one who receives all the attention. Aurelia is not as popular and not enjoying her physical and emotional discomfort. One night at a ball, she takes a quiet moment in the conservatory when she's discovered by James Trelawney. He asks her to dance, and in the quiet of the conservatory beneath the ballroom where she can hear the music but be alone and not stared at, they share a single dance that completely charms her, leaving her with one hell of a crush on Mr. Trelawney.

A year later, James has, to his surprise, inherited a title and an estate after his crapass piece of dung cousin ended up dead in a strange accident (one so strange an investigation was launched – though James was cleared of having anything to do with it).  Aurelia returns to London after taking time to heal and regain some strength in her leg, and instead of being timid and exhausted, she's stronger and more confident, due in part to her own physical recovery and the friendship of a woman in Bath who taught her much about inner poise and self-reliance. But when Aurelia returns to her life in London, she learns that Amy is now engaged to the former Mr. Trelawney.

This could have been an infidelity story (he was so swept in his passions for Aurelia that he betrayed Amy! Oh noes!) but it was not (thank heavens). This could have easily been an evil twin/good twin story (Amy is a selfish, scheming fang-toothed demon who devours happiness for breakfast! Oh noes!) but it was not (also, thank heavens). And it could have been angst and self-recriminations and more angst and woe (Aurelia loves him but he's engaged to her sister! Oh Noes!) but it was none of those things (thank heavens x3). That would have been very tiresome for me as a reader.

The book manages to avoid any of the expected cliches you might imagine from reading the plot summary and description. Amy and Aurelia are twins and very good friends to one another. They demonstrate that they care deeply for each other's happiness. Amy has no idea that Aurelia shared a dance with her fiance, nor that Aurelia has feelings for him at all. Aurelia wants her sister to be happy, so she hides how she feels, though her friendship with James grows as the book continues. There are plenty of small conflicts, including the angry sister of the crapass piece of dung cousin who don't believe that James is innocent and do believe he is unfit for the title, the questionable and not-entirely-welcome behavior of those who dislike American heiresses on principle, and the question of what did really happen to crapes piece of dung cousin – plus the resolution of how Aurelia will manage to endure her own misery at being in love with her sister's fiance and knowing she wouldn't dare interfere in her sister's happiness.

There are some wonderful parts to this story, especially when James brings Amy, Aurelia, and their family to his estate in Cornwall, and James is much more himself, at home and happy in the place he loves most. The differences between Amy and Aurelia become more acutely identifiable here, as well, though neither of them is totally ecstatic or totally miserable. 

What disappointed me was that the book held the promise of so much more, and was ultimately flat and somewhat forgettable. It was very quiet in its development – something I usually like and prefer to big displays of infodump and insistence on great drama – but when there were strong emotions, even appropriately strong emotions to be discussed, they just weren't there.

For example: Aurelia suffered a humiliating breakup immediately after her accident, and when that man visits London, she is less than pleased to see him:

For a moment, she let the feelings engendered by the knowledge wash over her: sorrow, apprehension, and finally, the welcome burn of anger that had set her free of him. Then, laying them all aside, she tossed back the bedclothes and swing her feet to the floor. Time to get on with the day.

If this person's presence was a minor episode in the story, that progression of emotions in a paragraph would have made sense. But he plays a much larger role, and she doesn't react very strongly to him at all then or later. She doesn't set the emotions aside, but they aren't a huge obstruction to her emotional progress, either. 

There were a few flaws to the writing that I think bothered me because of the disappointment with the lukewarm emotions of the story. Aurelia was tutored by a friend to dress in a way that distracts from her scar and draws attention elsewhere – and the methods she uses are described over and over again, and are remarked upon by others (which probably means they aren't working so well as a distraction).

I'm also told that James' dance with Aurelia in the beginning was a catalyst for her decision to take time away from London to focus on healing, but there are no memories or scenes of her hard work, just the final results and a few mentions of exercises.

The most bothersome was the frequency with which the characters, despite being rather intelligent otherwise, remark several times about a place that seems like a huge and obvious CLUE that ought to be explored. It's not until near the end of the book that anyone thinks to look or explore that area. I'm not sure what to call this, but I could have sworn this had a name, like “red herring” only not (y'all are going to think I'm obsessed with naming things, now) (which is kind of true).

Is there a name for when there's a HUGE CLUE that all the characters ignore, despite it being OBVIOUSLY A CLUE? Twitter suggestions included “Two-by-foreshadowing” from Rachel Aaron, and repeated suggestions of “stupid” and “annoying.” TV Tropes calls it “Just Ignore it.” Whatever it is, it happened in this book repeatedly.

(I Storified my conversation about this – I think Just Ignore It might be the best option, along with two-by-foreshadowing and “pink salmon” to go with the red herring, suggested by Randall Marsh.)

Anyway, despite being otherwise very smart, Aurelia and James both miss the obviousness of the obvious clue, and prolong the mystery because, well, I don't know why. I know they're smart, but they ignore the obvious, which isn't quite a mirror of their emotional situation, wherein they are both smart and know they're attracted to one another, but are honor-bound not to act. There's no reason WHY they don't realize the significance of The Big Clue that Shows Up A Lot, except that they don't.

There's also this line in an intimate scene that made me blink twice and re-read:

“The thin muslin of her nightgown fell away beneath his touch like a discarded skin.”

YEOWCH! Shedding skin! Nothing says sexytimes like images of snakeskin.

The novel is full of wonderfully decent people whom I liked. I'd visit all these people, especially in Cornwall. I loved that they left London and the relocation of the story revealed new things about the characters. But the strong emotions that Aurelia was hiding due to her desire to be a good person were never really revealed. I was told she had them, but I never saw them, not even in the ending. Aurelia and James both  suffer quietly, even though they have wonderfully warm and friendly conversations as James tries to figure out what really happened to crapass piece of dung cousin. Aurelia, in particular, ruminates a good bit on her feelings but works to keep them secret from everyone.

Their determination to be good people who do the decent and right thing made me feel a great amount of respect for them, but the strength of their determination wasn't matched by the portrayal of those emotions they fought so hard against. As boring and perfunctory as the relationship between James and Amy was, I expected the possibilities between James and Aurelia to be more passionate, more vibrant, more… not explosive, as detonation wouldn't really have fit the quiet elegance of the story, but more viscerally emotional.

I was really curious about this book, and think the author had a wonderful idea for a plot, and created characters who were likable, multi-dimensional and not bound to or even tempted by cliched behavior – all things I appreciate very much. I will definitely read her next book, in hopes that the delivery will match the promise of the premise.

But this book was, for all the hidden emotions and quiet sorrow, a very tepid story. I wanted their emotions to be as strong as their decency, and I wanted them to be less deliberately ignorant. The passion I was told about didn't materialize – not to my satisfaction. As hard as they worked to conceal and fight how they felt, Aurelia and James did not deliver a payoff for me as a reader.

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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Beccah W. says:

    I never like the evil sister plot line. I refuse to believe that women cannot be good to each other, and care about one another. I prefer my books sans cat fights for the most part. And since I have a sister, I know how powerful the bonds of family are, and know that it would be ridiculous to completely hate your sister!

  2. 2
    Cate says:

    I’m pretty sure the “Clue what shows up a lot but gets ignored by EVERYONE until the Moment of Truth” is called a “McGuffin”—or, perhaps, and “Extreme McGuffin” when subtlety is lacking.

  3. 3
    Mirandaflynn says:

    I don’t know about Brittany Spears, but the heroine looks very modern. Actually, the hero looks like he’s thinking “Why did I get a Bride Barbie for Christmas?”


  4. 4
    Amanda A says:

    I don’t know about looking like Brittany, but I want that dress!!!  Other than Halloween and Civil War reenactments, there’s really no place in our society for hoop skirts, ruffles, and lace.  Did I mention hoop skirts?

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    I thought the McGuffin was the meaningless thing that everyone was chasing that gave meaning and purpose to the plot – i.e. The Maltese Falcon.…

  6. 6
    Jazzlet says:

    I think Sarah is right about the meaning of McGuffin. It certainly isn’t red herring either as they end up being irrelevant (I have eaten one … there is a reason they are hard to find these days). If they don’t have lots of other things to investigate, it just soulnd like poor plotting.


  7. 7
    Jamarleo says:

    I’m not so sure about Britney Spears, but she does look like any number of Real Housewives.

  8. 8
    garlicknitter says:

    I have a friend who refers to that device where there’s an obvious clue being ignored as “Deus ex Stupida.”

  9. 9
    Jimthered says:

    Actually, a MacGuffin is a plot element that is vital to the story but is never fully revealed/described (such as the contents of briefcase in PULP FICTION and RONIN, the mathematical formula in THE SPANISH PRISONER, or the Rabbit’s Foot in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3).  Not knowing what it is lets the reader/viewer fill in whatever important meaning to it that they like, without tying it down to one thing.

  10. 10
    LisaC says:

    Willful ignorhints.

  11. 11
    Rij says:

    Sounds like an Idiot Plot

    “The Idiot Plot, of course, is any plot that would be resolved in five minutes if everyone in the story were not an idiot.”…

  12. 12
    Sandra says:

    My first thought was Barbie, too. And what’s up with her hand? On my monitor, it looks like a crab claw.

  13. 13

    “Coming this winter to Bravo: Real Housewives of the Regency. Ten times the corsets, ten times the drama.”

    And I agree with Beccah regarding evil sister plotlines. I have four sisters, and we are all incredibly close. My sisters are my best friends and my support system. We cooperate instead of competing, and none of us have ever fallen out over a romantic partner. We have helped each other through depression, alcoholism, divorce, homelessness, crazed wedding planning, and figuring out just what the hell to buy our parents for Christmas.

    Given the fact that romance is written for and by women, I would like to see more positive female relationships—especially between sisters. I know that there are books where this is the case, but they are in the minority of the ones that I have read. Even when there is a cooperative community, like in the Spindle Cove books, the relationships are frequently underdeveloped or severely overshadowed by the main romance. This is still better than the “all women are harpy whores except the pure and virginal heroine” trope, but I think there is plenty of room for improvement.

    I’m currently reading An Affair Before Christmas by Eloisa James, and while the book has issues (mostly plotting issues; there’s a whole hell of a lot going on), I love, love, LOVE the friendships that the female characters have with each other. There is a stereotypical evil MIL, but even she is well-developed enough to be convincing. I just wish that more romances didn’t take the Taylor Swift approach to female interactions.

  14. 14
    smlundberg says:

    Perhaps the Idiot Plot?

  15. 15
    smlundberg says:

    Ooh, No Peripheral Vision maaay work to. Or! the Idiot Ball.

    NO! I’m wrong. It’s totally Just Eat Gilligan..

    Seriously, you can’t give me excuses to go waste time on TV Tropes. This could go on forever.

  16. 16
    LadyMeghan says:

    The cover art kinda makes me uncomfortable.  Barbie seems vacant and stiff like she is a mannequin or else heavily drugged.

  17. 17
    LauraN says:

    I am such a sucker for the “we know we love each other but honor forbids a HEA” plot, as long as it isn’t an adultery story.  I was never charmed by adultery stories, but after helping two friends pick up the pieces after their respective husbands cheated and left, I find them even less romantic.  But how can this plot work if you don’t feel the agony of choosing honor over your own desires?  I have come embarassingly close to crying in public when reading plots like this, but it sounds like Sherwood won’t have me reaching for my hankie (if I had one.)  I’ll probably give this one a try anyway, though.  Sounds like an author to keep an eye on, if she gets better at portraying emotions.

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