Sunday 11 February 2024

CBR16 Book 9: "The Widow of Rose House" by Diana Biller

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Nowhere Book Bingo: Came out more than 4 years ago
CBR16 Sweet Books: New (new author)

It's 1875 and Professor Samuel Moore is doing marvellously, thanks to the many inventions he and his family are coming up with. What he really wants to do, though, is investigate and possibly prove the existence of ghosts, and to do that, he requires an introduction to the infamous Mrs. Alva Webster, a widow with a scandalous reputation. Sam doesn't really care about Mrs. Webster's apparently lurid past, he just wants to set up his instruments and investigate the old house she has purchased in upstate New York. Liefdehuis is rumoured to be haunted, possibly by multiple ghosts and he'd love a chance to make new discoveries. He does notice that Alva Webster is very beautiful, but at least initially, the science angle is the most important to him.

Alva Webster does indeed have a terrible reputation and a dead husband. All the rumours and scandalous gossip were started by her abusive husband after she took the courage to leave him once they lived in Paris. She was even looking into getting a divorce when he was killed during a robbery in Monte Carlo. Now her dream is to restore the once grand mansion, Liefdehuis, and document her process while doing so, hopefully resulting in a book on decorating and interior design. However, her odious brother-in-law is blackmailing her and the contractors she hired to start the restoration work at the house refuse to work, claiming there are ghosts there who scared them all nearly out of their wits. Samuel Moore keeps sending her letters, wanting access to the house, and eventually, she relents and lets him have access to the house, provided he promises to exorcise any ghosts he may discover as part of the process. 

Sam Moore is clearly a scientific genius, and while he's largely oblivious to social cues and what is considered polite and proper, he's also very observant and good at reading people. Having grown up in a loving family who all share a love of science and exploration, his life has been a very different one from that of Alva. The daughter of rich, but cold and status-hungry parents, she was married off to her husband (who needed a rich wife) after he seduced her when she was only 17 and who certainly didn't want anything to do with her once all the scandalous rumours reached them from across the ocean. The few times she's tried to contact them, her mother sends a harried maid out to shoo her away. She went from an emotionally abusive home to a physically abusive husband and even when she's trying to move on with her life and pick up the pieces of her tattered reputation, she's unable to forget because of her blackmailing brother-in-law. So she's naturally rather bitter and skittish, and while it's obvious that Sam finds her very attractive (he's not a man to hide his intentions or feelings), she is reluctant to get involved with anyone new.

This is set in the Gilded Age, mostly in New York, but with some flashbacks to Alva's life in Paris. While not as wealthy as her parents, Alva still has some of the fortune she came into her marriage with, but if she keeps having to pay her unscrupulous brother-in-law every month, she will struggle unless she manages to get her book finished and published. She keeps the truth from Sam as long as she can, since she's not used to having anyone to rely on or to support her.

Sam Moore is basically a big golden retriever of a man. He's tall and blond and clearly neuro-divergent in some way (most of his family seem to be, as well). Most of the time, he is accompanied by his best friend, Henry Van de Berg, a lawyer who makes sure that his patents are registered and that he and his family are paid what they are supposed to for their brilliant engineering solutions. Henry isn't exactly sure that making Mrs Webster's acquaintance is a good idea, but once Sam gets an idea in his head, he will pursue it tirelessly. So despite the potential complications of Sam's involvement in Alva Webster's life, he supports his friend. 

A novel featuring ghosts and a haunted house might be more of a paranormal fantasy. This is more of a straight historical romance with some supernatural elements. Minor spoilers, Alva's house actually IS haunted, and she and others are not imagining the horrible experiences they have with the ghost. But it's not the main focus of the story, for all that it plays an important part.

I really enjoyed this book and loved pretty much all the characters in the story. As far as I can see, Biller has written a novel about Sam's brother, but I hope she decides to give Henry a novel in the future as well. Possibly Sam's younger sister, as well. Either way, this delightful book ensures that I will check out Biller's other novels sometime later this year. 

Judging a book by its cover: Based on the cover image, I would have believed this book to be a much more straightforward historical novel. I certainly didn't expect a romance with paranormal elements. I suspect some readers picking this up would be surprised at getting a romance, while a lot of romance fans may have missed out on this one since it looks rather very different from most historical romance covers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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