TBR Day: “The Selfless Sister” by Shirley Kennedy

21 Jan


Info: TBR Challenge 2009

Theme for the month: category romance

In my TBR pile since:: summer 2006 (or 2005)

Genre: Romance / Historical (Regency)
Published: Signet, 2000 (Signet Regency Romance)

Monthly theme?: I think this book probably could count.

Why I bought this novel: I found it on a bargain counter. Since I don’t find a book 1) written in English and 2) a romance there often, I bought it.

The back blurb:
“Miss Lucinda Linley has seen five of her six sisters marry–and she always stepped aside as the younger girls made their matches, refusing her own suitors for the good of her siblings. Now, with her father’s money spent on too many dowries, she knows a suitable match is unlikely…
But when she meets Douglas Wyndham–the outcast lord of Ravensbrook–she finds her heart leaping with excitement. And Douglas can barely contain himself in the presence of this woman who shines brighter than the most refined of London’s ladies. But a twenty-five-year-old tragedy divides the two families and threatens to crush their fragile love. And so, after all the sacrifices she made for her sisters, she must fight for her own greatest passion and bravely cross a deep divide of enmity–to cement a bond between two rival families…”

With a title and a back blurb like that, I always was a bit hesitant to read this novel which made if perfect for this challenge.

The first scenes with Lucinda didn’t alleviate my fears. In addition to Lucinda being selfless and self-sacrificing, I learned that she is 26 years old, is the favorite daughter of her father and the most beautiful of the sisters, and that she wants to marry a man who is like her father, but only for love (like her parents). She likes to go riding, to draw and to watch birds, and she loves ancient history. In short, she is one of the heroines I’m always tempted to dislike but thankfully, later in the story there is no further emphasis on Lucinda’s perfectness.

There is not much to learn about the hero. The first look of him is through the eyes of his mistress. The novel opens with the famous hero-leaves-the-bed-of-his-mistress scene and features the usual things – Douglas Wyndham’s good looks and his exceptional skills in bed. Also, there is a dark mystery lurking in his background concerning his home, Ravensbrook Manor. Later, not much gets added to this characterization except Lucinda’s first impression that Douglas is as unlike her father as he could be.

The twenty-five-year-old tragedy alluded to in the back blurb has to do with the death of a child. In the words of Lucinda’s father:

“Your Aunt Pernelia lost a daughter many years ago. The child was only six at the time. Suffice to say, the whole affair was a terrible tragedy. Other than that, some tales are best left untold. That is all you need to know and all that needs to be said on the subject, especially since, as far as I’m concerned, you will never set foot in Southfield.” (18)

Apart from some more cryptic remarks about how unhappy a place Southfield, Aunt Pernelia’s home, is, that is all that is revealed then. Even after Lucinda gets her way and she goes to Aunt Pernelia in Henrietta’s stead (so Henrietta can marry), Lucinda’s parents reveal no more. “You have to see for yourself.”

Southfield is indeed a cheerless place. Not so much because of the tragic loss of Aunt Pernelia’s daughter (although she still is haunted by it), but more because her son, Edgerton, is a tyrant who rules the household and family with an iron fist, intimidation, and fear. Lucinda is dismayed to find that her father’s ominous warning were justified and she can do nothing but submit to Edgerton’s rule for one year if she doesn’t want to slink back to her parents in shame after she defied their wishes to not go. Things have to go from bad to worse before Lucinda openly stands up against Edgerton (even though I couldn’t help but wonder how Edgerton could get so much power in the first place).

The Selfless Sister is a story with many gothic elements. Ravensbrook Manor is an ancient castle complete with whispers about a ghost living in the attic and two families are united and divided by a mysterious tragedy, providing the perfect setup for a forbidden love; even Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho is mentioned. And in true gothic fashion, it’s Lucinda, the heroine, who tries to find out what really happened twenty-five years before. It’s the mystery of the tragedy that propels the story forward and governs it.

In comparison to the mystery, the romance between Lucinda and Douglas pales, even with the Romeo-and-Juliet-like premise of feuding families (which gets explored nearly to the bitter end in a secondary plot between Douglas brother Alex and Aunt Pernelia’s granddaughter Alathea). I think it’s the combination of only a few meetings between Lucinda and Douglas and the “arguing-is-actually-love” shaped conversations that didn’t work for me. There are passages when they think of the other (when they are alone), but the times Lucinda and Douglas actual spend together don’t have a lot of moments that show why they are attracted to each other. In addition, both are aware of the folly of falling in love with each other which leads to backtracking, especially on Douglas side, some misunderstandings, and saving-face behavior. Lucinda and Douglas sometimes seemed more like characters acting out the roles of lovers, following a script, than “real” characters, IMO.

I liked the gothic elements of the story and I thought the slow unraveling of the mystery worked rather well, too. I also appreciated that when Lucinda finally fell in love, there were a few twists, like Douglas seeming to be totally different from her father or how there were different examples of love and passion in the story for Lucinda to observe. And I was glad to read the scene at the end of the novel when all the women at Southfield finally find backbone enough to stand up to Edgerton and help that the ice-cold villain Edgerton gets his more than deserved comeuppance. Also, the writing was not bad.

But there were also some negative things. Aside from the romance, there is a lot going on, sometimes maybe even too much and too over-the-top. And I had some problems with the strained reasoning going on at the beginning for the sake of the story (to get the characters in place). It might be because of that why I didn’t buy some of the events leading up to the tragedy. I usually have no great problem to keep my RL opinion out of my reading, but as much as I tried, this time I couldn’t get over the behavior of some of the characters on the day of the tragedy because the answer to the mystery turns my stomach every time I think about it.

Verdict: This is difficult. Meaning…hmm…The Selfless Sister is an okay read (3/5). I’m not sure I would have read it without the TBR Challenge.


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