Season of Storms
The book’s title evokes a brooding drama peppered with sinister mysteries and heroic struggle – something that would keep you awake at night, jumping three feet at the slightest noise, but turning the pages despite yourself. But while Susanna Kearsley does apply a generous coating of Gothic atmosphere over this work of romantic suspense, there is little that is truly suspenseful about it, and even less that is romantic.
In the 1920s, the lead actress disappears on the opening night of Ill Prezzo (The Price), a play written for her by her controversial lover, Galeazzo D’Ascanio. Decades later, his grandson – mellifluously named Alessandro, or Alex – wants to stage the play on Galeazzo’s breathtaking villa in northern Italy, which is said to be haunted by the actress’s ghost. For the leading role he commissions a struggling British thespian coincidentally named Celia Sands, who thinks she has been chosen solely because she shares a name and a nationality with the actress who disappeared. Nonetheless she packs her bags and heads for Italy, where she later confronts more puzzling disappearances, a mock séance gone awry, murder, and a powerful attraction to the mouthwatering-if-just-a-tad-too-taciturn Alex – not necessarily in that order.
Ms. Kearsley is masterful with atmosphere, opening à la Twilight Zone with an ominous tarot reading. She paints northern Italy like a virtuoso, interspersing it with titillating historical tidbits – which could have been nothing more than whimsical marginalia if not for their parallel significance to the plot. Of course, the villa is appropriately dark and menacing.
But while the book owes much of its charm to panoramic descriptions, these also tend to slow the action. The result is a transporting world where not much happens, except for the occasional conundrum that the author tosses the reader like a bone to gnaw on. The enigmas we encounter through Celia’s eyes (the story is told in the first person) are resolved simplistically and – most irritating for this reviewer – anticlimactically. In fact, the disappearance of the actress turns out to be less engaging than the question of who really fathered the modern Celia, or who really wrote Il Prezzo.
Galeazzo’s story is told in progressive vignettes, which at first improves the book’s pacing by heightening the mystery of the past. However, this “mystery” doesn’t turn out to be much of one because of the obvious villain. The present story concludes in the same way; Ms. Kearsley makes no attempt to disguise the bad guys, and following the conflict is like navigating a spuriously complex maze where the correct path is lined with bright red flags.
Although they have disconcerting tendency to swap partners, the characters are cleverly crafted – with the clear exception of the villains. It’s difficult to depart from the basic archetypes populating a Gothic romance, but Ms. Kearsley convincingly creates protagonists with complex quirks. Alessandro is especially intriguing; stingy with his little smiles and always flanked by two big greyhounds, he is dubbed the quintessential Hamlet. It seems as though he says no more than three lines at a given scene and yet his presence is unerringly palpable. Then again, the narrator’s crush on him may have had something to do with it (“His quiet hazel eyes, the way he walked, the way he held his head to one side when he listened, made me feel all tangled-up inside and foolish.”). It’s a pleasure watching Celia draw him out of his shell.
This big and interesting buildup aside, don’t expect a strong relationship aspect from the book; Celia and Alex spend most of it thinking that the other is involved with someone else. Apart from her dreamy musings about him, they don’t become truly romantically involved until the last 60 pages. And even after the first (and only) kiss fleetingly depicted in the book, he largely remains an absent hero. When her life is threatened, he doesn’t charge to the rescue; in fact, he doesn’t even appear until the crisis is virtually over. While Alessandro is not without his charms, if you prefer a dependable hero he is certainly no Roarke or Jamie Fraser.
This book obviously gives more importance to elements extraneous to the hero and heroine’s romantic relationship, which in itself would not have detracted from a masterful plot had it not been for the glaring absence of a well-managed conflict. However, it’s redeemed by a lilting British prose, a vivid atmosphere, and satisfyingly round characters. I didn’t find it boring; Ms. Kearsley has a way of writing that transports you to the characters’ immediate experience. And she can create riveting sexual tension – just don’t expect a big payoff.