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Anya Seton

  The Sun Dial Press  
Release Date:


  Dark Gothic romance, 1849 on the Hudson River  
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  This is an excellent book. It has the feel of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, being dark all the way through. I picked it up on a whim from a used book store. The dark green faux leather cover is battered and torn, the spine cover falling off. I have no idea if it's still available for purchase. [Brendan's Note: According to Amazon, the Chicago Review Press reprinted this as recently as 2005.]

We meet Miranda Wells hiding from her farm chores while reading "The Beautiful Adulteress", a book surely forbidden by her strict Christian upbringing as the oldest daughter of six children. The book suits her natural penchant for the gloriously romantic unknown. As a sheltered eighteen year old who has never travelled more than ten miles from home, Miranda has no knowledge of how one actually becomes an adulteress, but it was the "glorious palpitating romance that mattered. The melancholy heroes, the languishing heroines, the clanking ghosts, dismal castles and supernatural lights; all entrancingly punctuated at intervals by a tender, a rapturous but in any case a guilty kiss." I think any of us drawn to stories of the time can relate to this charming young girl who feels so out of place on her family's farm. Her life is peaceful, her family loving if strict, and she has no appreciation for what this means or how rare it is.

Into this idyllic life a letter from Nicholas Van Ryn drops and starts spreading sinister ripples. A long lost cousin of Miranda's mother (well, actually it's the mother who has been lost Van Ryn is very well known) invites the Wells family to send a daughter to their large estate as a companion and some time governess for their six-year-old child in exchange for the "many advantages which she could not hope to enjoy in her present station." Although her father disapproves, he gives in and accompanies Miranda up the Hudson to the Van Ryn estate of Dragonwyck. Here she meets Mr. Van Ryn, as handsome and dashing as though he stepped out of her romances, and his portly wife Johanna whom she instantly dislikes. Van Ryn is painfully civil to his wife. To Miranda he is alternately warmly welcoming and harshly critical. Along with his strange family life, Van Ryn deals with the unhappy tenants of his lands, who view him as a hold-over from the "old land" with no place in this new world of freedom.

Other characters that appear are a delightful French nobleman who throughout the book defines Miranda's innocence and growth into womanhood, a young doctor that unwittingly falls into Van Ryn's evil plans, and the old Zelie who warns Miranda of evil to come, foretold by ghost music heard in the Red Room, where a previous Van Ryn wife has died.

Although the whole book is a perfect setting for dark romance and uncomfortable, guilty loves, watching Miranda blossom and learn is heartbreaking and keeps you guessing. If you like this era, I highly recommend this one.

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