Seen By Moonlight
Seen By Moonlight by Kathleen Eschenburg features likable protagonists, an unusual plot, a great sense of place and history, and is written in a beautiful style. There’s just one problem: it’s kind of boring.
Annabelle Hallston is an unconventional young woman in 1860s Virginia society. When her scholarly father dies, she and her two brothers are deep in debt. Her father’s biggest creditor, Peyton Kincaid, will forgive her debts and see to her brothers’ education and future – if she marries his son Royce. With war looming on the horizon, Annabelle has little choice but to agree. Royce respects Annabelle but bitterly hates the thought of marriage, and is being blackmailed by his father to agree to the scheme. Royce makes one condition: that after five years of marriage, if they are childless, Annabelle will be granted a divorce and she and her family will be set up financially. They marry, but Royce has no intention of consummating the union.
Royce is a soldier who fought Indians in Nebraska territory, and came home to Virginia when Lincoln’s election made the Civil War inevitable. Although his father’s plantation is worked by slaves, Royce abhors the institution of slavery. He is torn between ideological adherence to the abolitionist North, and loyalty to his beloved Virginia. When Lee chooses to fight for the South, Royce follows him, and marches off to war – but not before he wins Annabelle’s heart.
Royce is a tormented and angry soul, the most compelling character in this book. The author does a good job of showing how the wounds on his spirit go deep. They prevent him from accepting Annabelle’s love, and prevent him from admitting his own love for her, throughout most of the book. He attempts to drive his wife away with harshness, but what nearly breaks her heart is the pain of loving a man who is constantly in danger.
Eschenburg does an exemplary job of showcasing the underlying tensions that exist on a seemingly-peaceful Southern plantation on the brink of war. Royce’s turmoil over which side to fight for is persuasive. The slaves are torn between resentment of their masters and loyalty to the only homes they’ve ever known. Several of the Kincaid slaves are related to Royce by blood, thanks to his ancestors’ habit of visiting the slave quarters at night, and this makes the whole situation even more complex. Too, slavery is not the only crime that has been committed on the plantation. Eschenberg also accurately depicts the progress of the Civil War in Virginia (this book spans the war years, ending in 1865). All of this adds layers of poignancy to the story of Annabelle’s impossible wartime love for her soldier husband.
And yet, every time I put this book down, I had a hard time picking it up again. Something about Eschenburg’s writing style places the reader at a distance from the events and people she is portraying. I never felt as though I were there, right in the middle of the action, with my heart in my throat waiting for what would happen next. Rather, it was as though I were watching the scene on a small screen on the other side of the room. So while I admired this book, I can’t say that I loved it. I was interested, but not riveted.
The problem is exacerbated by the love scenes, which are the only parts of the book not well-written. The purple prose and repetitive language in these scenes really threw me out of the story, especially since they’re in such contrast to the elegant writing of the rest of the book. Perhaps Eschenburg’s true calling is to write historical fiction with romantic subplots, rather than romance novels?
My criticisms might seem like quibbles. If you are interested in a Civil War romance of sweeping scope, do pick up Seen By Moonlight. It never achieves the kind of intimacy and proximity that the best romance delivers, but it’s a good read nevertheless.