The Notorious Widow
This book was very hard to assign a grade to, because where I’d give it an F for romance, it is worth an A for its study of the destructive nature of gossip. I have rarely come across more rotten and annoying characters, yet I was drawn to this book to the point I couldn’t put it down. It was like slowing down to view a car accident.
We are introduced to the vicar’s widow Catherine Parrish, once known to the villagers as Saint Catherine for her good deeds. Recently she is known as “that harlot,” for a list of sins including: bedding half the seamen in Plymouth, seducing schoolboys, and recruiting participants for orgies. Blake Townsend, the Earl of Rockhurst is quick to believe the second image when he thinks he sees Catherine and her paramour in the middle of Exeter. He confronts her nastily. Later that day he runs into a friend from his school days, Lord Seabrook, who, knowing Rockhurst’s devotion to fairness and justice, begs him to help his sister who is being maligned unfairly by rumors. Rockhurst agrees to help, and is shocked to discover that Lord Seabrook’s sister is none other than Catherine, the woman he castigated.. Shamed by jumping to conclusions without evidence, Rockhurst apologizes and vows to restore Catherine’s reputation.
Catherine has little faith in Rockhurst. Not because she thinks he’s insincere, but because the real reason he’s there is her brother hopes Rockhurst will offer for their younger sister Laura if given time to get to know her. Catherine feels guilty for using her situation to lure Rockhurst into their home; at the same time she thinks her brother might be lying and Rockhurst is really there to spy on her. Rockhurst realizes that he’s been set up for the benefit of the husband-hunting Laura, but sticks to finding the truth behind the rumors of Catherine’s ruined reputation. What he uncovers is a pattern of cruelty, destruction, and torture by one of the most devious villains ever written, Jasper Rankin.
Jasper may or may not be mentally unbalanced, but he is evil incarnate. Ever since he was a small child he has set out to destroy anyone or anything that ever hurt or insulted him. His crimes include dismembering pets, destroying property, and impregnating young girls, but his most powerful weapon is gossip.
Jasper is only one of many villains in this story. There is Catherine’s sister Laura, who sinks to all new lows to force Rockhurst into marriage. Lord Seabrook is a moral hypocrite who lies to Rockhurst to get him near Laura. And finally every single person in Exeter who spreads the rumors and innuendo without a shred of evidence comes across as villainous as well.
With all this going on, is it any wonder the romance suffered? There were some hints that Rockhurst lusted after Catherine and the feeling was mutual, but nothing that showed they were in love until the last two pages when Rockhurst declared his feelings. Up to the last chapter Catherine did not trust Rockhurst and believed his methods had reduced her family to eternal ostracism from Exeter. These two rarely talked about anything beyond how to stop the rumors. Rockhurst had longer conversations and more in common with Catherine’s youngest sister Mary. Heck, he talked more with Catherine’s daughter than Catherine. She didn’t even know until the end that Rockhurst’s own reputation is shot. It felt like the author had reached the end of the book and remembered she was writing a romance novel and threw in an obligatory declaration of undying love and a proposal.
If you want to read a story about how gossip can destroy, a story in which everyone has a guilty conscience and trusts no one, then you will love this book. On the other hand if you want a moving romance, I recommend you look elsewhere.