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TBR Challenge 2013: Into the RITA Wayback Machine

rendezvousatgramercy This month’s theme for the multi-site TBR Challenge had me scratching my head a little. We’re supposed to read a RITA winner or runner-up. Now I have to admit that, at least in recent years, my reading tastes and the RITAs have diverged somewhat. I also noticed as I scrolled down the list of RITA winners that the books I did have from that list were almost all books I’d already read.

Then I got to the real oldies – books I would have been too young to read the first time around. My mother and grandmother both enjoyed Candlelight romances and I’ve ended up with a big box of their former keepers (some people get silver and china, some get antiques, I get old category romances and gothics – no wonder I write on a romance site). Sure enough, I managed to dig out a 1981 novel, winner of the 1982 Golden Medallion for Best Category Historical Romance, entitled Rendezvous at Gramercy by Constance Ravenlock. That’s right. This book goes back so far that they hadn’t even started calling the award the RITA yet. I wasn’t sure what I’d encounter when I read this one but it turned out to be a bit of a gem. I’d probably give it a B.

The story appealed to me as soon as I started reading. For starters, heroine Alexis Palme is the daughter of a Swedish diplomat – you don’t meet those in historical romance very often. On top of that, rather than the now-ubiquitous Regency England setting, the majority of the action in this book takes place in Napoleonic France. The story opens as the spoiled young Alexis sets sail for Gibraltar to join her father. Sweden, as a neutral country, is attempting to quell the conflict with France that has torn the Continent apart for years. Alexis never makes it to Gibraltar as her ship sinks and she ends up washing up on the shores of Brittany.

Even though the family fears their shipwreck victim may be an English spy, the Count and Countess de Chambord do not want to leave her to her death and so they take her home to the Chateau Gramercy. As Alexis recovers, she starts to learn that all is not as it seems at the chateau – and she meets the brooding local doctor, Edouard Lautrec. Wounded earlier in the war, Dr. Lautrec now cares for those in the area around Gramercy. He sees Alexis as a spoiled brat but the two also spend plenty of time dancing around their somewhat subtle but rather obvious attraction to one another.

The backstory gave me plenty of reason to enjoy this book. In some ways, Rendezvous at Gramercy is almost as much a coming of age story for Alexis as it is a romance. As the story begins, the motherless Alexis has been pampered and indulged by her father and her self-centered, brattish tendencies stand out. Time at Gramercy changes that as Alexis comes to appreciate how much the Count and Countess did for her, even as they suspected she may be an enemy. As she recovers and can start to leave her room, Alexis also sees the conditions at the chateau and down in the village and starts to realize how the years of war have impoverished those around her. Amidst the war, poverty and seeing that some have had to turn to smuggling to help the village survive, Alexis starts becoming a lot less selfish. She thankfully never becomes one of those quasi-saintly “love all the small animals and urchins” heroines we sometimes encounter in wallpaper historicals but her new life does pleasantly temper her self-centered outlook and scheming tendencies.

Much of this novel centers on doings at the chateau and adventures involving smuggling and the somewhat corrupt soldiers at the nearby local garrison. It’s highly entertaining reading and more than a little educational from a historical perspective. Even though the plot moves a little abruptly at times(there’s a lot of action crammed into 250 pages), I got sucked right into it. Though the book is billed as romance, in some ways this is really more like a historical novel with strong romantic elements. The romance between Alexis Palme and Edouard Lautrec takes something of a backseat to the plot action at times and while the relationship is absolutely necessary to the book, the feelings between the two are not explored so deeply as in stories where the couple pretty much is the end-all and be-all of the story. I found that interesting in a way. After all, this book won a high accolade from RWA in 1982 yet it falls into that category of romantic novels that today’s RWA now actively tries to ostracize.

As mentioned before, some of the action in this book feels a little choppy and abrupt. It’s not awful, but we did start heading a bit far into the realm of too many happy coincidences. In addition, the secondary romance and the ending both seem to come out of nowhere to an extent. Were it not for this, I’d probably grade Rendezvous at Gramercy a bit higher. However, I still enjoyed reading it quite a bit. Glad Grandma hung onto this one.

– Lynn Spencer

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