Lady Fortune

Lord of Danger

Moonrise

Prince of Magic

Prince of Swords

The Right Man

Ritual Sins

Shadow Lover

Shadows at Sunset

Wild Thing

 
The Widow by Anne Stuart
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-813-0
***
I think Anne Stuart is one of the best writers of contemporary romantic suspense around, and although this book has some of the qualities that make her writing exceptional, there are some important elements missing. Ultimately I was frustrated by characters who held me at arm’s length in spite of my desire to get involved.

The story starts out as vintage Stuart, with the kind of dark hero and unconventional heroine that few authors even attempt in this genre.

Charlotte Thomas, at 30, is a successful Manhattan restaurateur and the former wife of acclaimed artist Aristide Pompasse. She married Pompasse when she was 17 (he was 60) and was the subject of some of his greatest paintings. Charlie was by no means the first or the last very young woman to capture Pompasse’s amorous attention, and by the time she left him at age 25 he was already taking younger lovers, although none of them ever equaled Charlie as his muse.

Pompasse, a deeply arrogant, selfish, egotistical and temperamental artiste, planned to lure Charlie back into his life to provide some badly needed inspiration, a plan that has been interrupted by his murder.

The first person to discover Pompasse’s death is Connor Maguire. A former award-winning journalist, the burned-out Maguire is now unrepentantly writing for a muck-raking tabloid and researching the book that will make him rich - a tell-all exposé of Pompasse’s life.

Maguire accidentally finds Pompasse’s body while breaking in to search the house for the artist’s diaries. In an inspired bit of film noire writing he ponders this new development, and its implications for his book, while standing over the corpse and smoking a cigarette. He takes a look around the empty house then departs, erasing the evidence of his presence.

Finding that she is Pompasse’s executrix, Charlie heads to his villa in Italy to settle the estate. Several of Pompasse’s former lovers are still in residence, from the elderly and senile Antonella to the young and bitter Gia, each with a possible reason to want him dead. Maguire has moved in as well, posing as an insurance consultant in order to search for the diaries and other dirt for his book.

So, where does The Widow go wrong? Well, it doesn’t go wrong, exactly, so much as it goes nowhere for too long. One of Anne Stuart’s great strengths has always been her ability to take a sinister male character who is the antithesis of the typical romantic hero and make him completely irresistible, at first through sheer physical charisma and then by unpacking the nuances of a complex character. With Maguire, however, in spite of pages of interior monologue, I never felt as though I got past the surface. Cold and methodical, he does what he needs to do in order to get the material for his book without giving us any real insight into the man beneath the hard façade. The result was that, rather than being pulled into him in spite of myself, I just kept bouncing off.

Charlie is also very cool and self-contained. It is an accurate character portrayal but, taken to this extreme, tends to shed the reader’s interest and empathy. I also thought that her past as the lonely and insecure young wife worshipping a self-obsessed and much older man went largely unexplored. Instead, Charlie develops along pretty predictable lines, occasionally vulnerable or cranky, but not multi-dimensional.

Consequently, in neither Charlie nor Maguire did I feel as though layer after painful layer was being peeled back so that I could find their hearts. Instead, they got stalled, squabbling in “annoyed but attracted” mode, until they finally ended up in bed together.

The consummation (and it’s a good one) broke the story free of this logjam, and the pace of every element of the story picked up considerably for the last quarter of the book.

Bottom line? I wouldn’t discourage you from reading this book; there’s some wonderful writing as well as frustration. But then go find Ritual Sins or Nightfall (or, like me, pull them off your keeper shelf). That’s how Anne Stuart does it best.

--Judi McKee


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