Susanna Kearsley's "The Winter Sea," is a darn good read. From the opening pages, her words flow like that of an old friend, lulling the reader into a comfortable sense of satisfaction that has one wishing that as the pages turn, more pages will mysteriously appear to allow this particular treat to be savored longer.
In the great romantic/suspense tradition of Mary Stewart--who in my opinion retains the grand old dame seat for positioning her damsels in distress with the most literary language and in magical venues that act as characters while crafting a plotline that withstands the test of time and achieves levels of sophistication and nuance that most of today's writers can't even fathom--Kearsley's heroine finds herself in an abnormal situation but not of the usual predictable formulaic fabrication. Like Stewart's ladies, she possesses intelligence and a degree of fierce tenacity that fits with the sensibilities of the 21st century yet the telling of her tale relies on subtlety to convey that extra oomph that propels this one beyond the ordinary overly sentimental romantic confection that lends to knowing the ending before even reaching the midpoint of its pages.
Instead of the usual potboiler revolving around murder, kidnapping or the plight of a helpless child, Kearsley manages to interject an element of the supernatural into each of her stories. "The Winter Sea" cleverly relies heavily on such a premise--in this case, genetic memory and uncontrolled yet compelling voices from the past--but with such a light and deft professional touch that the reader becomes more absorbed with rather than skeptical of a turn of events more akin to the horror anecdotes of Barbara Erskine than Stewart or Victoria Holt.
Delightfully, Susanna Kearsley utilizes the story-within-a-story technique in "The Winter Sea." Her protagonist, Carrie McClelland writes historical fiction for a living. Like Bram Stoker before her, she draws upon the centuries old New Slains Castle near Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire, Scotland to fire her imagination for a narrative of Jacobite intrigue occurring after the Treaty of Union motivated the exiled `Pretender', Prince James, to attempt an uprising against the English Queen Anne circa 1708. Using the castle itself as the novel's locale, she decides to relate this Stewart reclamation for the crown from the vantage point of Sophia Paterson, an ancestor that she knows little about other than the fact that she appears in the family genealogy as living during the required time period. Hunkered down in a rented cottage in the middle of cold Scots winter, Carrie quickly becomes immersed in not only the novel that seems to be frenetically writing itself, but by her sixty-something landlord, the charmingly quirky Jimmy Keith of the Doric tongue and his two attractive yet different sons, the irrepressible pub-going womanizer, Stuie--so full of himself he can't see what's plainly in front of his nose and the quietly unobtrusive historian Graham and his sidekick canine, Angus, both of whom delight in wild walks along the treacherous seawall that acts as a natural boundary to the backdrop of the North Sea.
As Carrie entwines her fictitious character's life with the real espionage that transpired in and about Slains Castle, she makes a point to authenticate her information with a degree of historical accuracy. When she realizes that much of what she thought of as fiction indeed reflects not just a clever verisimilitude of her own imaginings but actual chronological truth that has remained secret for over three centuries, she investigates the idea that she may be channeling the soul of a woman whose spirit yearns for the ultimate peace found in disclosure.
True to the example of Mary Stewart, Kearsley writes romance with the subtlety of great literature. This is no bodice ripper--so those expecting lurid scenes of eroticism back off and look further--nor is it a feminist manifesto a la vintage Barbara Michaels. Kearsley's protagonists have purpose--goals of their own where the men come on the side as delicious accoutrements to a main course already rich with caloric plot content. In "The Winter Sea," she interjects just the right amount of romantic appeal to both her heroines--these women love with a calm passion that does not belie their strength of character. Their stories unfold in pretty much the same manner that any woman's attraction for her man twinkled into full-fledged existence. She structures a firm base of mutual appeal that hooks into the reader's soul and then buttresses this with silent understanding that all of us recognize as echoing the real deal that we all desire.
Kearsley's men are delectably desirous. Strong and silent, they reflect men that women want by their side. Her manner in presenting the qualities of the two love interests in this tale remind me of what I personally find intriguing about the man in my life--the juxtaposition of his strength and his sweetness. Thank you, Ms Kearsley, for knowing what we women like so well.
Bottom line? I rarely give a book five stars, but Susanna Kearsley's "The Winter Sea" deserves the acclaim for this genre of novel. Reflective of the Mary Stewart School of romantic suspense, Kearsley weaves an airtight spell that alternates and mingles the past with the present in a believable likeable way with a strong locale that acts as a player in its own right. Kudos go to her ending that, believe it or not, had this jaded reader blinking back both tears and smiles of surprise and approval. Well done. Recommended for those readers that wish Mary Stewart had over 100 titles to credit her name.
Diana Faillace Von Behren