Pandora's Box

The Perfect Stranger

Anne Gracie
2006, European Historical Romance (1810s [Regency] France and Spain)
Berkley, $7.99, 344 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425210529
Part of a series

Grade: B
Sensuality: Warm

Faith Merridew left the safety of London society to elope with the love of her life. Months later, though, when they are married and living in Paris, she discovers her husband is a bigamist. She flees Paris intending to return home, with little money, no resources, and with only the clothes on her back. People assume the worst...her shabby but expensive clothing must mean she's a prostitute.

As the story opens Faith runs through the wilderness, fleeing three men bent on raping her. But she is lucky because just as her pursuers are about to catch her, she comes upon Nicholas Blacklock, a seemingly lone Englishman camping in the woods. Nick, an ex-soldier, has both a gun and a dog. He’s not about to allow anyone to be raped in his presence and he fights the men and saves Faith. Faith is frightened and alone but pride makes her want to leave as soon as possible. Nick is having none of that for he sees she is a gently bred woman in trouble. He is soon joined by two companions; all three are veterans on a pilgrimage of sorts through France and Spain to return to battle sites where they lost brothers in arms.

After Nick understands her situation, he proposes a marriage-of-convenience. Nick intends to wed Faith for her safety and reputation, ship her off to England to live with his mother, and be on his way...he has a mission to accomplish that he will not reveal to Faith. Nick’s widowed mother has long begged him to marry, but he believes he cannot. The solution would solve his problem and also Faith’s, for Faith dreads the prospect of returning to her family in disgrace. Faith and her twin sister were brought up by a tyrannical grandfather and awful memories of the abuse she suffered continue to haunt her. She agrees to marry Nick. But he did not count on a bride determined to be a wife in deed as well as name. In spite of his best efforts, Nick finds himself caring about his bride...and wanting her physically more then any woman he has ever known.

Linda: This month we welcome Robin Uncapher to discuss Anne Gracie's The Perfect Stranger, the third book in the Merridew Sisters series. Robin did you enjoy TPS?

Robin: I did enjoy it. Overall I like Anne Gracie's "voice." and I almost always like the setting of Spain and France. My grade is a B. What did you think, Linda, and what is your grade?

Linda: I really enjoyed it also - and also gave it a B. The tone of the book in many ways reminded me of another book with a similar setting, Carla Kelly's The Wedding Journey. The mix of humor and pathos with very likable characters on the road, were what made me think of the Kelly book.

Robin: Yes, Anne Gracie has a voice that is like Carla Kelly's. Like Kelly she tends to make her characters good people and the conflict is not about good versus bad.

Linda: I liked Gracie's voice a lot, and I particularly liked Faith. This was a girl who had always been protected, and when she is betrayed, strikes out on her own because of innocence, not because she is TSTL. She quickly realizes her mistake and strives to learn all she needs to survive. I just loved her.

Robin: The book is also written in a compelling style. There is always something happening next. For one thing the plot - of what you know will be a marriage of convenience between strangers - always keeps me interested. There is just something about total strangers being forced into that kind of situation that always keeps me watching,which is interesting. It certainly is not a new story. But I have to say that there was something about the book that bothered me. Some of the situations were awfully contrived. And Faith was soooo good. Another problem was that some of the story was over-sentimentalized, such as when Faith snuggles up to Nicholas in bed unconsciously because she was afraid of thunder. And there's a scene of her holding twin babies at a farmhouse that was just too sweet, and convenient, for me.

Linda: I agree that there were some contrived scenes, but because they propelled the plot and didn't slow down the story, they didn't bother me. My problem with the book was with Nicholas. While he is as stalwart and likable a hero as any in romance, I felt for much of the book that not only was Faith kept at arm's length...so was the reader. It's obvious from the beginning that his headaches bode for a serious plot complication, but in keeping his secret till near book's end Gracie denies the reader the chance to really know Nick. What we see of him is good, but I would have liked to have known more about him earlier in the book.

Robin: While I see similarities between Gracie and Kelly, Kelly usually does most of the thinking inside the hero's head. I know this was a problem for you, but I kind of liked the mystery of it all and thought Nicholas was cool. While I wanted to know more, he kept me interested. Faith, on the other hand, I knew a lot about and she seemed childish - in his eyes as well. She was childish, but not immature, if that makes sense. It was the way she is described - so small and afraid of thunder, but with a gun!

Linda: I thought of Faith more as innocent of the world rather then childish - which would be typical for a woman of her time. But, she also had a horrible childhood of abuse and I thought her remarkable in that she wasn't bitter or terrified of the world. As for Nicholas, I was happy in that the reader knows he is a really good guy from his actions toward Faith and the stories she hears about him from his friend Stevens. I did like the fact that even though he tried to keep Faith from getting to his heart, he was never cruel. It was obvious his rule of her not getting attached to him was to prevent heartache for her.

Robin: Yes, and during the period when he tries to send her away and remain detached - those scenes are heartbreaking. I love heartbreaking.

Linda: This book was a lovely mix of humor and pathos. I found myself wiping tears from my face but found humor as well, especially in the secondary romance between McTavish, one of the men formerly under Nicholas' command, and Estrellita, the gypsy girl they rescue from angry villagers. And I loved the dialogue between Nick and Faith, particularly when he taught her to swim and she noticed that "it" floats! The playfulness of this couple under less then auspicious circumstances added a nice edge to their relationship. Faith enabled Nick to put his dark journey aside for hours at a time and find enjoyment in the here and now.

Robin: To me it was more heartwarming than funny, I did not find the characters unusually witty. The reason the book was a B for me was definitely Nick and Faith and their story...it would have been a B+ without Mac and Estrellita, about whom I really did not care. They struck me as such stereotypes that I couldn't see past that. The big burly Scotsman and Estrellita's with her gypsy ways. Faith and Nick were far more nuanced.

Linda: I thought Mac and Estrellita added a bit of levity to the book, but didn't detract from the main couple at all. Her gypsy heritage did add a paranormal element to the book - as did Faith's dreams - but I was so engrossed in the story that I didn't mind stretching my imagination a bit.

Robin: I usually hate magic in a romance novel. I am just not mystical, but in this case I thought it worked.

The book is predicated around a Big Secret. The secret itself is probably something readers will figure out early on, but why he wanted to keep it a secret isn't revealed for a long time. How did you feel about it, and did you understand why Nick kept the secret? I loved it myself. It seemed logical and I just kept wondering how the author was going to solve the problem because she was so convincing. This was very poignant to me, whereas a lot of the other sentimental stuff - such as Faith's conversations with the old woman when she is preparing for the wedding - seemed overdone..

Linda: Nick's Big Secret was a cause that made sense to me. Readers will certainly pick up on the serious nature of Nick's journey early on even though they don't know the personal history behind it until much later. I disagree with you, Robin, about Marthe, the old woman. I enjoyed those scenes surrounding the wedding and understood Faith's reaction that the Church ceremony made her marriage "real" even if it wasn't. I also liked the way Nick thought he finessed Faith into bed without having to admit that was where he wanted her. Not to mention where she wanted to be. Did The Perfect Stranger make you want to go back and read the previous books in this series?

Robin: No it didn't, although I read Gracie's first two books and liked them. Tallie's Knight was a DIK for me and Gallant Waif was a B. If the other books in this series have a similar setting to TPS, I will want to read them, but the book's sentimentality made me reluctant to read another one really soon. Had you read Gracie before?

Linda: I read Gallant Waif and I was a little disappointed in it, but I think that was because all of the online buzz gave me perhaps too high expectations. I don't remember a thing about it, which I guess means I wasn't altogether impressed with it. As for TPS, I have the first two books in this series and imagine I'll read them before too long, because I really liked this book a lot. And I guess I'm a sucker for sentiment, because nothing really struck me as being too hoaky except perhaps the scene with the twin babies - that was a little over the top.

Robin: (laughing) Yeah those babies will do it every time. Actually, the sentimentality was just slightly annoying until we got to Mac and Estrellita. Their accents drove me nuts and she is the feisty, feisty, feisty gypsy with the hot blood.

Linda: LOL, I loved her reaction to Mac's calling her a small besom and her outrage that her besoms were large.

Robin: You laughed...I was annoyed by the besom joke. All I could think of was - Are these people supposed to be of normal intelligence?

Linda: I found the story so compelling, without lags or boredom, and with such likable characters, that I just overlooked minor things like accents that came and went, etc. Gracie kept me engrossed from page one.

One of the things that appealed to me was that both Faith and Nick are fish-out-of-water in their respective environments. Nick never wanted to be a soldier and hated killing, but became an excellent officer. Faith was miserable under her Grandfather's reign of terror, being denied music, mirrors or any joy in life took its toll on her. But, she never really felt at home in London society either. Her realization that she is more herself on the road with Nick then she has ever been and that she is a courageous person - which is not how she saw herself - led to emotional growth that I found believable.

Robin: Yes, you're right. It was interesting to see how Faith handled things and how they reacted to her. I loved her not complaining about hardship and enjoying it.

Early on I mentioned the setting. After I finished the book, I realized something...it could very easily have been a Western. It strikes me that Anne Gracie is Australian and like Americans, Australians have this incredible frontier, and stories of going across deserted territory. I think Aussies, like Americans, admire independence and striking out on your own.

Linda: One thing did bother me about the setting of the story - I never got a real sense that they were traveling through post war Europe. They were in sand hills and rode along the water, but I never felt they were in France or Spain. Perhaps more info could have been given to things that had been destroyed etc.

Robin: Something about the setting struck me as odd. Early in the book they are in France, in a cafe. Someone says something negative about the English and the people in the cafe react negatively I thought to myself, "this is not post WWII!" The French were not real happy with the English at this point.

Linda: Yes, one would have thought they would have cheered.

Robin: Did that strike you at the time? I kept wondering if I was misunderstanding.

Linda: I noticed it, but it wasn't serious enough to pull me out of the story. I did love the way the two snobby English ladies were treated after snubbing Faith and I thought her standing up for Stevens after they made a scene about his appearance (he was scarred in the war) fit Faith's character.

Robin: I mean the French still admire Napoleon - la Gran Fromage, as my husband calls him.

Linda: The Big Cheese! LOL. Robin I am glad that this book was enjoyable for you, thank you for joining me this month.

Robin: Thanks, Linda. Overall I enjoyed reading the book.

--Linda Hurst and Robin Uncapher, for

-- Pandora's Box

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