Book Review

The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller

CW/TW warnings inside

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.”

“Much closer.”

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.

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The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller

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  1. 1
    Darlynne says:
    14+

    What a great review. You made the case for what this book is/isn’t and your obvious enjoyment is infectious. I hope you find that dress.

  2. 2
    Colleenie says:
    10+

    This is such a great review! Based on the blurb, I would have completely skipped this book, but the review has made me eager to read it. I really don’t like horror/scary things, but I think I could handle this.

  3. 3
    Vasha says:
    11+

    Yeah, marketing people seem to have decided this year that if they promote a book as a “rom-com” that’ll avoid the romance cooties …

  4. 4
    Lisa F says:
    5+

    My grade is concurrent to yours – this is one heck of a spooky delight, an excellent book.

  5. 5
    Wendy says:
    8+

    I’m only about 20% into it, but they had me at the argument about whether you could use a personal pronoun with a ghost, i.e., can one be said to “own” a ghost, or does the ghost own itself.

  6. 6
    Zeynep says:
    5+

    One click!! Great review, thank you!

  7. 7
    EC Spurlock says:
    9+

    I too would not have considered this book based on the cover and the conflicting blurbs; they make it seem darker and like it doesn’t know what kind of book it’s trying to be. I appreciate your breaking the various elements down into levels and percentages of each facet, so that we can get a more accurate picture. This sounds right in my wheelhouse and definitely a title I’ll be looking for.

  8. 8
    Kareni says:
    5+

    What a wonderful review, Aarya … thank you!

  9. 9
    4+

    Well now THIS sounds like fun. And I just read the first scene in the sample over on Kobo, so RIGHT THEN into the cart it goes. 🙂

  10. 10
    LaurieF says:
    3+

    Great review. The book is now on my to buy list!

  11. 11
    Kate says:
    4+

    Great review! I too would have skipped it based on the summary but I bought it this AM and found all the nice little moments of humor a wonderful counterpoint to the spookiness.

  12. 12
    JenM says:
    6+

    Thank you, Aarya, for perfectly articulating how I felt about this book. I especially loved your description of Sam as “an eccentric and endearing hero who is the human equivalent of a bouncing puppy”. I want everyone to read it and found it hard to believe that this is the author’s debut as it was so polished and well-constructed.

  13. 13
    Leah says:
    4+

    I am about 3/4 of the way through this and I agree with everything you said! Sam has me smiling just about every time he is on the page. I am also hoping we see more of Henry and Maggie, I definitely thing there’s a story there! Great review!

  14. 14
    Amy says:
    4+

    Yes, yes to everything in this review. I loved this book. When I first saw the cover I kind of dismissed it, but as I heard all the buzz I, thankfully, took a second look and I’m so happy that I did. It’s wonderful.

  15. 15
    Mel says:
    3+

    Andplustoo it’s available on Audible! I’m so stoked!

  16. 16
    Mandy Aguilar says:
    3+

    Well, I bought this yesterday based on the first two paragraphs of this review, and I finished it this evening. I wholeheartedly endorse the squee! I loved it so much!

  17. 17
    Aarya says:
    4+

    I’m so happy y’all are loving this book! I love when my recommendations work for others (they don’t always, which is fine because we all have disparate tastes).

    For those who have read it: I have strong suspicions that the next book will be about Benedict (Sam’s brother). According to the author’s social media, it’s set in Paris. And hopefully my shipping of Henry/Maggie (Sam’s lawyer best friend and Sam’s younger sister) will become true in the third book. My radar for shipping secondary characters is highly attuned, and I’m usually right about these things. 🙂

  18. 18
    emma says:
    1+

    the conflicting blurbs; they make it seem darker and like it doesn’t know what kind of book it’s trying to be. I appreciate your breaking the various elements down into levels and percentages of each facet, so that we can get a more accurate picture. This sounds right in my wheelhouse and definitely a title I’ll be looking for.

  19. 19
    BJ ROY says:
    1+

    I’m so happy ! the book remind me of the story- Billionaire’s Intense Love which I read on last week.

  20. 20
    Brianna L says:
    2+

    I just finished this book last night and I want to buy 100 copies to give out to everyone I know. I liked it that much. It was so fun to see how it played with genre so well! And I felt legitimately warm and fuzzy reading their interactions. Wonderful.

  21. 21
    Alo says:
    1+

    I read this after reading your review and it’s one of my new favorite books. Thank you for sharing.

  22. 22
    Lynn says:
    0

    It’s been a week since I read this book and I’m still upset because
    1) Diana Biller has no other books out yet and
    2) no male character will ever be able to fill the giant Samuel Moore shaped hole in my heart.

    Personally I could feel the chemistry between Maggie (Sam’s little sister) and Henry (Sam’s friend/lawyer) in the few scenes they had together but I didn’t ship it. My main reason for this was the age difference. Maggie is only 16/17 and Henry is – as far as I understood – the same age as Sam, so 29/30. I see their relationship more like brother sister banter but I might be completely off. According to the author’s Twitter the main character of the next novel will be called Amelie which I think is Alva’s friend/neighbour from Paris.

    This was the first romance novel I ever read (or at least that I read while fully knowing that it’s romance) and I think I couldn’t have chosen a better start. Now I’m frantically looking for other books that give me that satisfying mixture of romance, angst, humour and a little bit of mystery/ghost story (which is how I found this article and website). Great review!

  23. 23
    JenM says:
    0

    @Lynn, I have two recommendations for you. Both are not historical/gothic but rather contemporary romance with a touch of paranormal. I’m not into scary or creepy books and I thought these were just right – an occasional jolt of the paranormal to get your heart pounding, but not enough to overwhelm the romance, as well as heroes that are genuinely nice guys and heroines that are smart, capable women.

    The first series is Kelly Moran’s Phantoms series. It follows a team of paranormal investigators who film a ghost hunting TV show. There are three books, Ghost of a Promise, Give Up the Ghost, and Ghost of You.

    The second is Meg Benjamin’s Ramos Family series, Medium Well, Medium Rare, and Happy Medium, that follows three siblings that have an inherited a touch of the paranormal and can see ghosts. Again, a great balance between the romance and the occasional jolt.

  24. 24
    Lynn says:
    0

    @JenM, thank you so much for the recommendations! I do occasionally watch horror movies/series but always end up peaking through my fingers so your suggestions sound right up my ally. I don’t have an e-reader yet so I’ll have to wait with the Meg Benjamin books but I have put all of your suggestions onto my wishlist.

  25. 25
    Aarya says:
    0

    @Lynn: Would you be open to non-ghost romance suggestions with a mystery element (plus the humor/angst/swoon feels). I love giving recommendations; I just wondered what your exact criteria were.

    What kind of books/authors do you love? You said this was your first romance (that you knew was a romance!), but knowing non-romance faves can help me give good romance recommendations.

    SBTB also has a book finder if you’d like to filter by trope and genre.

    https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/bookfinder/#more-info

  26. 26
    Lynn says:
    0

    @Aarya: At the moment I am open to anything really. Allthough I have to say that contemporary is usually not my favourite genre to read. I usually go for either fantasy (David Eddings’ “Belgariad” has been a fave since I was 13), historical fiction (mostly set in Central Europe in the Middle Ages, which often contains more murder than romance) and crime/thriller (though I prefer cosy mysteries a la Agatha Christie over straight up thrillers). I’ve also read lots of manga but my preferences in manga differ from my preferences in novels.

    I’m still trying to figure out what I want in a romance novel. I’ve tried using the book finder but there are just so many options that I’m unsure where to start. I’ve also tried googling the best gothic romance novels but the lists contain mostly classics like “Jane Eyre” or “Rebecca” which is not what I’m looking for. It’s also hard to tell whether or not the main characters are getting it on in these books (yes please).

    The only criteria I have that I’m absolutely sure of is no love triangles. I’m just tired of seeing them getting romanticized. I’m also not sure if I want “brooding, mysterious men” as main characters but that really depends on whether or not we get parts from his perspective where we learn that he is indeed full of feels in which case squee.

  27. 27
    Aarya says:
    0

    @Lynn:

    It’s always difficult to rec to a genre newbie because there is SO MUCH out there; you never know what you like/don’t like without some trial and error (and sometimes there is a LOT of error). That being said, let me try and give it my best shot!

    SBTB has a weekly feature called The Rec League. The archive is HUGE. If you click “The Rec League” tag at the bottom of a post, you can scroll endlessly for weeks. If a topic catches your eye, it’s a useful resource.

    An example from 2017: Noir/Murder Mystery Romance.

    https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2017/03/rec-league-noirmurder-mystery-romance/

    *

    Okay, my recs are going to be all over the place because you’re unsure what you’re looking for. The first rec isn’t even romance but it sounds up your alley.

    1) There are several historical mystery series with a romantic thread (not technically genre romance, but the element is there.) I highly, highly recommend Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series set in Victorian England. Sherry has a lot of fans among SBTB reviewers. If you’d like to try a non-gothic historical romance by Sherry Thomas, I adore THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON (so much angst and feelings!). She’s also written a YA Mulan romantic retelling, which I loved and reviewed here: https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/reviews/the-magnolia-sword-a-ballad-of-mulan-by-sherry-thomas/

    2) You mentioned Central Europe. I don’t know if you read YA, but Jenn Bennett released a charming YA 1930s adventure in Romania. There’s some magic and a romantic element. I reviewed THE LADY ROGUE here: https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/reviews/the-lady-rogue-by-jenn-bennett/

    3) Re: Agatha Christie. KJ Charles has released some wonderful historical romance with detective vibes. In Edwardian romance set in country house estates, there’s THINK OF ENGLAND (m/m) and PROPER ENGLISH (f/f). I reviewed the latter here: https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/reviews/guest-review-proper-english-by-k-j-charles/

    Cat Sebastian also released a book last summer called HITHER, PAGE (m/m 1940s romance set in quiet English countryside). She marketed it as “Agatha Christie, but make it gay!” Full disclosure: I am friendly with the author, but I enjoyed the book and it definitely fits the AC request.

    4) I am a bit stumped when it comes to Gothic. While I read tons of historical, I don’t read many Gothics (I believe SBTB reviewer Elyse does and you can always browse through her archive). The Gothics I have read aren’t as romantic as THE WIDOW OF ROSE HOUSE. The problem is that TWORH is a unique book; there aren’t many exactly like it. I’ll think more and get back to you if I come up with something.

    5) THE LOTUS PALACE by Jeannie Lin. Tang Dynasty-set historical romance with an important detective/mystery element. I adore Lin’s work, and the slow-burn is intense. I think she’s one of the most talented historical romance authors out there.

    6) EMPIRE OF SAND by Tasha Suri. This is my go-to rec for people who want to read romantic fantasy and you said you enjoy fantasy. It’s technically not a romance novel, but it’s one of the most romantic slow-burns that I’ve ever read. The world-building is inspired by the Mughal Empire and I love it. Warning: it’s not funny at all and it’s very violent (but I did swoon at the slow-burn).

    7) This is a selfish rec on my part and you said you were open to anything… so here goes. The Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews contains my all-time favorite books ever. It does have a “brooding, mysterious man” and we only get the heroine’s POV (so you might despise it). The HEA (Happily Ever After) is over three books and book 1 (BURN FOR ME) ends on a cliffhanger. Definitely try a sample first and read reviews to assess if you’re interested.

    8) Going back to historical. If you’re looking for funny and swoon-worthy, I think most readers will agree on Tessa Dare being one of the best writers out there. I would start with either Castles Ever After or Spindle Cove series. All her books work as standalones even if there are interconnected characters. My personal favorites are A WEEK TO BE WICKED or ANY DUCHESS WILL DO.

    **

    If you try any of these or want more recs, feel free to email me: aaryamarsden [at] gmail [dot] com. It doesn’t matter if you hate/love all of them. I find the “I hated your recs” feedback equally useful to refine future recommendations.

    Happy reading! I hope I was helpful. It’s really hard to recommend to someone who hasn’t read much romance before!

    P.S. Diana Biller sent a free short holiday novella in her December newsletter. It’s about Sam’s parents and how they met. If you want to read it, just email me and I’ll forward it. It is adorable.

  28. 28
    Lynn says:
    0

    @Aarya: Thank you for all the recommendations! I feel like my romance reading wishlist has doubled in size and I’m so, so excited about all of these books. Now I only have to wait for my next salary to be able to get them. I do already own “Empire Of Sand” but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet so I might prioritize that one.

    I do read YA novels (esp. fantasy) but I find it hard to find them sometimes because they’re often categorized differently in my country. Like there’s a YA section but it mostly contains books intended for (young) teenagers.

    I will definitely get back to you when I’ve read some of your recs and also email you immediately about that holiday novella bc I miss the Moore family so much.

    Thanks again for putting so much effort in your list! The romance fandom is so welcoming~

  29. 29
    Michelle Hebert says:
    0

    I just finished Wodow of Rose House- loved it! Sam is adorable and Alva is so strong.
    I look forward to reading about Sam’s siblings. I also Stan for Henry and Maggie!

    Can you send me the newsletter with the story of Sam’s parents?

    Michelle

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