After a three-year affair that ended in heart-break, Louise Amberley is determined not to make the same mistake again. Therefore, when Otto Winther–a charming, handsome Dane–pursues the young travel-writer, she insists he wed her before she’ll let him into her bed. Unfortunately for Louise, her infatuation allows her to be rushed into a quick, secret wedding–before she discovers a series of devastating secrets about her new spouse.
First, he’s an epileptic. Second, he’s a Count, not a “farmer.” Third, he insists on keeping their marriage–as well as her pregnancy–under wraps. Finally, he seems to have done some horrible things, including a few that just might trace back to World War II.
Then, she meets his family: a Snow-Queen of a mother, a grown-up son who loathes his father, and a daughter who is nearly as chilly as the rest of them. Only Erik, the Count’s younger brother, has sympathy for the Count’s secret bride–or, as she begins to think of herself, Otto’s “shadow wife.”
Then, Louise begins to realize that her husband has not only kept secrets from her; he is also erratic and cruel. His gothic castle closes in around her–full of secrets she cannot solve. What happened to the Count’s first wife? Why is Otto’s family so opposed to him remarrying? Why the secrecy and the lies? And why, why, won’t Otto admit to his family that he and Louise are already married?
Gothic novels can be hard to review because as soon as you say too much, you ruin the suspense that drives the plot. Suffice to say, The Shadow Wife has more than enough mystery to make it a page-turner. Whenever I had to put it down, I was sorry. Whenever I picked it up again, I was completely absorbed.
Dorothy Eden is particularly successful in her portrayal of Otto Winther. She manages to make the central male character convincingly charming (well, at least charismatic enough to convince Louise to marry him on the double!). Yet, at the same time, she plants seeds in the reader’s mind that he’s dangerous. Indeed, Otto is a terrifying figure.
Louise is harder to identify with. She is a creature of her time (1960s), and therefore she swings back and forth between sexually liberal (the three year affair that predates the book) and almost Victorian (if you like it than you better put a ring on it!). It is, I know, the combination of lust and the wound of her prior affair that drives her into Otto’s arms. Nevertheless, this reader found herself shaking her head and wondering how Louise could allow herself to be bear-led in such a fashion.
Eden spends enough time developing secondary characters, making them vivid and believable. Some shift attitudes towards Louise quickly, but the plot does justify it, as jarring as it is to read. Though Otto’s family members don’t have that many one-on-one scenes with the heroine, those they do have are illuminating. A gaggle of old women enliven the Gothic edifice that is the Count’s abode.
And oh, what an abode it is! The Shadow Wife‘s setting is detailed enough that I could easily imagine myself in Louise’s place. I could see the rooms and the grounds of Maaneborg Castle–right down to the dust and owl-droppings.
As for romance, Eden has two to contend with: the shadow romance, which–as I said above–she handles deftly by combining just the right amount of desire and danger for a Gothic novel. The ‘true’ love story is less thoroughly developed, though Eden introduces the lucky man early and involves him in the plot. By the end of The Shadow Wife, I could imagine Louise becoming a real wife–but at the same time, the ends were tied up too quickly and neatly to be totally satisfying.
However, I have to say that Dorothy Eden has written a Gothic that deserves the cover blurb from Victoria Holt: “Compulsive reading [. . .] I just had to go on to find out how it ended.”
If Victoria Holt recommends a Gothic–who am I to disagree?