CW/TW: heroine is a victim of physical and emotional abuse in former marriage; discussion of murder, suicide, violence, and mental institutions (not related to the protagonists).
Ignore your first impressions of the cover — yes, I’m already frantically googling that dress for the inevitable closing date of my Gothic mansion, but the cover doesn’t exactly scream romance novel. Rest assured, The Widow of Rose House is 100% a historical romance, complete with charming sequel-bait family members, protagonists smelling like sandalwood (it’s the heroine this time!), sex scenes with protection (more of this in historicals, please), and a central love story that is the embodiment of heart eyes emoji. I love this book so much and want to hand-sell this funny, spooky, and magnificent Gilded Age romance to everyone I know.
Notorious widow and social pariah Alva Webster returns to the United States after twelve years spent in Europe during her marriage. Her parents have all but disowned her after reports of her shocking misdeeds ruled the scandal sheets for years. Alva has a plan for the next chapter in her life: she wants to publish a book about interior decoration and aims to restore the derelict mansion Liefdehuis for her case study. Unfortunately, the restoration is upended by rumors (and sightings!) of a ghost. Alva doesn’t believe in the existence of Liefdehuis’s ghost, but her crew does and refuses to work on the house. Desperate and determined to convince the crew to resume work, she turns to eccentric inventor Samuel Moore — who cheerfully believes in the existence of ghosts and is eager to conduct scientific experiments — to help rid Liefdehuis of any specter.
Before I start singing praises, I want to spell out reader expectations clearly: the publicity surrounding this book is confusing. Based on the cover alone, it looks like a historical mystery a la Lady Sherlock. The blurb hints at more romance, but it contains seemingly contradictory phrases such as “effervescent Gilded Age romantic comedy debut” and “darkly Victorian Gothic flair.” I’ve seen The Widow of Rose House described as “spooky Gothic rom-com” in one breath and “horror ghost romance” in the next. While these are normally useful descriptors for setting tone and expectations, the combination of buzzwords might be confusing to the reader. The book defies categorization because it doesn’t neatly fit into a preexisting box, but historical romance readers will nonetheless love it. Let me break down exactly what I think The Widow of Rose House is.
Is it spooky? Yes, but not always. The scenes in Liefdehuis are spooky because of the ghost. But the entire book does not take place in Liefdehuis (approximately half. Even when they’re in the vicinity, no one actually sleeps in the dilapidated house). There are two-to-three genuinely terrifying scenes that had me breathless with fear and dread. The rest of the time, all mentions of the ghost have a note of anticipation and a haunted sensibility, but I would not label them as scary. If you’re looking for a spooky but not nightmare-inducing read to put you in the mood for Halloween, this is the perfect novel.
Is it horror? I don’t think so. Perhaps one can argue that the aforementioned genuinely terrifying scenes are horror. I will allow that they have horror-like elements, but the book is not and should not be described as horror. The reader shouldn’t be expecting Stephen King levels of terror.
Is it Gothic? Merriam-Webster defines Gothic as “of or relating to a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents.” Liefdehuis is desolate, remote, and mysterious (with violent incidents and ghost rumors to boot!).
It loomed over her, surrounded by overgrown grounds that had probably once been the height of elegance. Here and there one could make out a vestige of former grandeur: the tall trees they’d passed on the way; the long-dry fountain sitting in the middle of the circular front drive; the wild forest of brambles that had once been a formal rose garden. The building itself was an uninspired gray stone rectangle, three stories high and crumbling around the edges. Save for its condition, there was nothing particularly distinctive about the property—it had been built with size in mind, rather than elegance, to impress rather than please. When it had been first built it would have been perfectly average; now, after decades of emptiness and rejection, its broken and boarded windows gave it a fragile, whipped expression, like an ugly dog who’s come to expect the kick.
Alva fits the mold of a Gothic heroine: a scandalous widow with a dark past that she’s haunted by. However, 1) Liefdehuis fits the Gothic description but a significant portion of the book takes place in New York City (these scenes are decidedly not Gothic), and 2) I would not characterize the relationship between Alva and Sam as Gothic. It’s romantic, funny, vulnerable, and tender. Sam is an eccentric and endearing hero who is the human equivalent of a bouncing puppy. He’s adorable, kind, sensitive, and full of lightness. The exact opposite of Heathcliff, which explains why I love Sam so much (sorry, Heathcliff stans. I despise him).
The book plays with point-of-view in an interesting way. How Sam experiences Liefdehuis is not the same way Alva experiences Liefdehuis. To Alva, Liefdehuis is a metaphor for her own experiences: they’re both haunted by something that they can’t escape from. She’s scared of her past, scared of the ghost, and scared of what will happen to her if she can’t exorcise the ghost. She refuses to believe in the ghost’s existence for the longest time, and that makes her eventual change of opinion so much more traumatic and moving. To Sam, Liefdehuis is simply another scientific curiosity and an excellent opportunity to contact a ghost (a phenomenon that he’s always believed in). The more he gathers different ghost origin stories for Liefdehuis, the more intrigued he becomes. As Alva points out to Sam, he has no trauma to speak of. His loving family and happy childhood contribute to his consistent excitement and lack of fear.
The result of this divergence is that Alva and Sam’s point-of-view scenes feel different. The house is always spooky and atmospheric, but the reader perceives the house differently when they’re in Sam or Alva’s head. Sam’s perspective is “less Gothic,” if that makes any sense at all. Most readers would empathize with Alva’s more negative interactions with the ghost. It’s thoroughly weird to be in Sam’s head: he’ll have a ghost interaction that’s charming to him but spooky to the reader.
To answer the original question: is it Gothic? Yes and no. Don’t expect Wuthering Heights or a more traditional Gothic mystery like Hester Fox’s The Widow of Pale Harbor (there are so many Gothic widow books out this autumn!). I don’t think using the word Gothic to describe The Widow of Rose House is inaccurate, but the term is attached to a set of preconceived notions and you might be sorely disappointed if the book doesn’t live up to those expectations.
Is it a rom-com? I saved this for last, mostly because of the hornet’s nest that this question always generates. I don’t want to get into the weeds of how to define “rom-com” when there’s contentious opinions about illustrated covers and marketing these days, so I’ll answer these two questions instead. Is it romantic? Is it comedic?
Is it romantic?
Yes, to my utter surprise and delight. I was expecting a ghost mystery with light kissing. I cannot stress this enough: The Widow of Rose House is emphatically a historical romance novel with explicit and open-door sex scenes (by “explicit,” I don’t mean scorching sex scenes like in an erotic romance, but the heat level is similar to a historical romance published in 2019). There is thrusting! There is “surging carnal bliss!” There is “the heaven of muscles contracting!” It’s not all flowery prose like that, but you get the idea. There is also something that I love that occurs during the first sex scene, but I have to zip my mouth shut because it’s a gigantic spoiler. Just know that I freaking loved it and you’ll understand what I’m talking about when you reach that scene.
The ghost storyline is important, but I would argue that the romantic thread is more central to the book. The ghost is more in the background than anything; it’s the vehicle by which Sam and Alva meet and fall in love. My one complaint about the book is that I wish there were more ghost interactions once they solve the mystery of the ghost (there is one final climactic scene, but I wanted more).
The POV is equally split between Sam and Alva’s perspectives and the reader has an equal opportunity to fall in love with both of them. Frankly, I was more worried that they wouldn’t sort out their romantic tensions or attain their HEA than I was worried about the ghost. Alva has a lot of demons from her past marriage, and her reluctance to open her heart to vulnerability is heart-wrenching. Sam, meanwhile, does what can only be described as waging war on Alva’s prickly and wary barriers. He is so charming and wonderful and respectful (okay, I’ll stop with the adjectives) that Alva never stood a chance. And to be honest, neither did I.
“We got up.” She shoved her hair out of her eyes and put her hands at her waist. “Why did we get up?”
“Ah.” He smiled at her. “Because this is too perfect to waste. We must celebrate! We must dance and revel! We must howl at the moon!”
She lifted her eyebrows, biting her bottom lip as though she could stop it from curving. “Because we’re pagans? Or possibly wolves?”
“Because we like each other,” he said, drawing her close to him and looking in her eyes. “And that’s worth all the celebrations in the world.”
Is it comedic?
Sometimes. Is it Lucy Parker levels of constant laughter on every page? No. It’s obviously not a barrel of laughs when the ghost is wreaking havoc in Liefdehuis. But as I pointed out earlier, those spooky moments aren’t the entirety of the novel.
“It’s better than ghost hunting,” Benedict said as they walked out of the room.
“I don’t hunt ghosts,” Sam protested. “I bear them no ill will at all. I just want to make their acquaintance.”
“Ghost social climber, then.”
Most of the funny moments are generated by Sam and his delightful family (please let his sequel-bait siblings have their own books. I am already shipping Sam’s best friend with Sam’s younger sister). The source of humor is understandable considering they don’t carry the same burdens that Alva does. Sam’s point-of-view — particularly his eccentricities as a genius scientist, cheerful bluntness, and distaste/confusion at society’s norms — made me giggle frequently.
Humor is a fine needle to thread, especially when a book incorporates sobering content (including those mentioned in the CW/TW). Too much comedy amidst grief may seem inappropriate and jarring. The Widow of Rose House threads that needle perfectly. It treats serious topics with respect and doesn’t brush over Alva’s trauma with irreverence. It is clear from the beginning that she has suffered even though the precise details don’t emerge until halfway (there are obvious clues and I guessed almost immediately. It’s not a surprising revelation). While the exact details aren’t known to the reader until midway, her dark past informs her entire characterization and worldview. I adore Alva: she’s so capable and determined to survive despite struggling with her demons.
The comedic moments belong in Alva’s world, too. As Alva notes, Sam is responsible for bringing lightness into her life. She deserves laughter in her road to healing.
How did he do it? One minute her world was [spoilers redacted] and anger and skeletons in dark, shadowed corners, and then Sam Moore walked into the room. It was as though he walked in an almost imperceptible beam of light, which rendered the terrifying ordinary, and the ordinary beautiful.
I want to be clear: falling in love with Sam doesn’t miraculously erase Alva’s pain. He doesn’t have a magical penis that vanquishes her demons. Her love for him certainly increases her happiness, but it’s not an antidote to her trust issues and trauma. By the end of the book, however, Alva has gained the ability to trust Sam with her love and heart. That’s why the HEA is believable and satisfying; I know that their love will beat the odds even if Alva hasn’t completely recovered from her nightmarish memories.
I love this book to death (get it? Death? Ghosts? Never mind). Minor complaint about wanting more ghost interactions aside, this Gilded Age romance will stay with me for a long time. I always feel a glow of unparalleled happiness when I read a near perfect debut. In my mind, I can foresee the upcoming years of excellent storytelling from Diana Biller; the certainty of that future excites me. Try a sample of the first chapter; it hooked me instantly from the first paragraph and never let go. The Widow of Rose House is close to perfection and any lover of historical romance will adore this debut.