A Stranger's Wife
I don’t much care for Westerns. I picked up A Stranger’s Wife on the recommendations I’d heard from others, deciding to give it a try despite the setting. I’m very glad I did, and what’s more, I can’t wait to read more of Maggie Osborne’s work.
A Stranger’s Wife is the story of Lily Dale, a woman who hasn’t had a lot of luck in life. She hooked up with a bad man who dragged her into a life of crime. After he was executed, she found herself in prison, their daughter illegitimate and facing the same impoverished childhood (in both money and love) that Lily herself had. Now, just as she is released from prison, two men show up and blackmail her into complying with their schemes for a seven-month period, after which she’ll be well rewarded and free to start a new life in Europe with her daughter.
The two men are Quinn Westin and Paul Kazinski. Quinn has worked and planned his whole life for the campaign he is about to undertake, to become the first governor of the new state of Colorado. Paul Kazinski is his best friend and right hand man, the political mastermind and fixer behind Quinn’s campaign. Their only difficulty: Quinn’s wife Miriam has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Quinn needs his wife at his side for the campaign, and it just so happens that Lily is the spitting image of Miriam.
The chemistry between Quinn and Lily is immediate. Lily finds him attractive despite both her vow to have nothing further to do with men, and the anger and contempt she feels for him for interfering in her life. Quinn is smitten by a woman who is Miriam’s twin in looks, but who far outshines her in spirit and sensuality. Although it takes a long time for the romantic aspect of their relationship to really heat up, the tension is present throughout the story and the anticipation of their eventual coming together is pleasant in its own right.
These are memorable characters, with real flaws and real pasts that are hard to live down. Lily is no angel; she committed the crime she was jailed for, and her rough edges are abrasive rather than charming. Quinn does collude in forcing Lily into the deception, and keeps important secrets from her to the very end of the book.
But the real theme of the book is transformation. Maggie Osborne portrays these characters in a realistic way, warts and all, so that as they slowly change and grow into better, more likable people, the reader comes to like them all the more. The Pygmalion-like storyline involving Lily’s change from a hardened frontier woman into a lady of quality, complete with manners, clothes and lifestyle, is enjoyable in its own way for its fairytale aspects. But on top of that is Lily’s growing maturity, as she comes to see her situation as a blessing rather than a curse, and determines to take advantage of the opportunity to literally change her station in life, and her daughter’s as well. She discovers a strong streak of integrity within her, as she balances the demands of Paul’s schemes, the emotional buffeting of her relationship with Quinn, and her determination to discover what really became of Miriam.
Quinn, too, is transformed by his relationship with Lily and the events that follow from it. He slowly finds that the cost of what he thought he always wanted – political success – may be too high after all. Both he and Lily grapple honestly with the mistakes they’ve made in their lives, becoming new and different people who can move forward together.
These developments are all set within a compelling and suspenseful plot. Will Lily be able to pull off her impersonation? Is someone trying to destroy Quinn’s candidacy? Do Quinn and Paul really intend to set Lily free when the deception ends, or do they have more sinister plans in mind? And the biggest question of all: What really happened to Miriam?
Some may complain that the romance is not romantic enough. Neither character is inexperienced in the world and both are quite frank about sex. There were moments when I wondered if the author had been too successful in portraying the depths of Lily’s anger and sense of betrayal in the situation she’d been forced into, and if it was believable that she could then “get over it” and fall in love with Quinn. By the time it happened, though, I found their relationship very convincing, even as both Lily and Quinn tried to stay pragmatic about it.
One part of the book is unbelievable – the political campaign itself. Its portrayal seemed to owe more to Primary Colors than actual 19th century history – I kept imagining Paul looked like George Stephanopoulos. Campaigns of the Gilded Age were far more about power blocs with figurehead candidates than genuine political ideals, and campaigning itself had more glitz and spectacle, featuring picnics, parades and bonfires, not dinners and fundraising. I didn’t find Quinn’s campaign issues and style very believable. However, the more compelling aspects of the plot made me willing to suspend my disbelief.
The biggest accomplishment of this book was selling me on its Western setting. Maggie Osborne does an excellent job of showing both the more rugged and more genteel aspects of frontier life in the 19th century, with convincing details of transportation, housing, clothing and etiquette. For a few hours I was transported to Lily and Quinn’s world, and I enjoyed my stay there far more than I expected.