A Perfect Stranger
by Anne Robins
(Zebra, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-7699-1
***
The author formerly known as Alice Duncan, Emma Craig, and Rachel Wilson offers up an unusual setting and pleasing romance in this first book of a new trilogy.

Isabel Golightly has left England with her 6-year-old daughter, Eunice, to start a new life in America. Itís just bad luck that they are getting there via the Titanic. On the night the ship hits an iceberg and begins to sink slowly into the frigid waters Ė Isabel is frantically trying to get her and Eunice to a lifeboat. While they are 3rd class passengers, a wealthy suffragette, Loretta Linden has taken them under her wing. However in the melee, Eunice becomes lost. Then a kind stranger appears out of nowhere, reunites mother and daughter, and they safely make it onto a lifeboat.

While Isabel is loath to accept charity, she and Eunice continue to be the subject of Lorettaís kindness once they land in New York City. Loretta has a home in San Francisco, and suggests that their merry band (which also includes a White Star stewardess, Marjorie MacTavish) make the trip west. Not especially fond of New York, Isabel agrees, hoping to find work out west so she can support her precocious daughter.

It is on the train out west that young Eunice spies the man who saved her on the Titanic. Somerset FitzRoy is a botanist and scholar who was spending time in England researching his latest book on plant life. Having lost all of his specimens on the sinking ship, heís heading back home to San Francisco to try to continue with his work the best he can. Heís been haunted by images of the lovely young mother he helped on the ship, so heís pleased when fate steps in and they meet again.

A Perfect Stranger is a light, fluffy confection short on conflict but long on appealing characters and an interesting setting. Only the prologue is spent on the sinking Titanic, with the bulk of the story taking place in turn of the century San Francisco. Modern marvels like automobiles and telephones add charm to the story, and add to Isabelís amazement that sheís no longer in her tiny English village.

The conflict, such as it is, consist of Isabelís feelings of inadequacy and Somersetís absentminded professor tendencies. Given her past in England, class distinctions are engrained deeply in Isabel, and freewheeling San Francisco is like living on the moon. Somerset is the classic Beta hero who thinks marriage is best when itís a union between two partners who admire each other. Heís befuddled by love, and becomes even more confused given his growing feelings for Isabel. Heís spent most of his life buried in books and studying plants, and is fairly clueless when it comes to the art of wooing. However, heís charming in a geeky sort of way, and the scenes he shares with Isabel are sweet.

The romance here does often feel secondary to the novel as a whole. Robins introduces quite a few characters, which gives the story more of an assemble feel. Isabelís daughter, Eunice is an amusing young girl, although her precocious nature didnít ring entirely true at times. While the child is a genius, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around a 6-year-old reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the writings of Sigmund Freud.

Still, A Perfect Romance is a charming, light read that is a perfect candidate for a lazy Sunday afternoon. The author does a very nice job with the setting, and her characters are appealing enough to peak curiosity in the next two books in the series. With the rise in romantica and erotica, there donít seem to be as many sweet romances populating the shelves these days. Robinsí ďfirstĒ book should fill the void for those readers who enjoy their romance on the lighter side.

--Wendy Crutcher


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