Bar Sinister by Sheila Simonson

Short Version: Long on historical, short on romance.

This novel came to me through a recommendation on my list of books sorted by author with a comment from Jorry saying she/he thought someone was missing from my reading list: Sheila Simonson. Always willing to look into a suggestion, I found one of this new-to-me author’s books available on e-loan from my library.

Bar Sinister surely had the most authentic feeling historical elements of any romance I have read. (I say feeling because I am not a historian, just a pretentious reviewer.) I wasn’t expecting any [insert funky bassline here],  but I was disappointed that the two leads were rarely in the same room house town county country. It wasn’t even an epistolary romance, despite letters passing back and forth, and I found myself frustrated that the only time the hero and heroine spent any real time together was in the Epilogue when, spiff-spoff, they decided to marry.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Emily, widowed with a four-year-old son, has decided to become a baby farmer to generate income and to provide a larger family for her child. She takes in the baby boy and three-year old daughter of Captain Richard Falk.  Also widowed (widowered?), his Spanish wife has passed away and he has returned to England to place his children in care that is meant to be temporary, but may become permanent depending on his survival in the Wars. He drops the children and the baby’s wet-nurse off with Emily and returns to the Continent.

The portion of the novel in which Richard’s children, Tom and Amy, settle in was very difficult. Amy is a three-year-old which makes her of an age to understand that her Papa has disappeared, but not really why, and she doesn’t speak English, nor Emily Spanish. When the grown ups clue in that Amy thinks her father is dead (like her mother), Emily and Richard start writing letters which include adventure stories Richard incorporates into each missive. The arrangement goes on for years, with Richard making rare, brief appearances between postings and sending letters full of tales for the children.

Richard’s perilous existence is complicated by his parentage. An admitted by-blow, his biological family is divided between wanting him to disappear forever and come for visits. This element is crucial to the plot progression and provides much of the action. While it did create character development, it didn’t add much to the romance element. I wasn’t expecting a lot in that department, or even any smolder full stop, but the characters were too removed from each other to make the ending seem like much more than a marriage of convenience that concluded rather than started the story, despite their protestations of love.

Despite the lack of romance in Bar Sinister, Simonson is a very good writer and I enjoyed the historical immersion feeling of reading her prose. I picked up Lady Elizabeth’s Comet at my library since it is the novel specifically recommended by Jorry. The hero is a supporting character in Bar Sinister and such a charmer that I want to read his story, but it will have to wait as Julie Anne Long has released a new book and that gets priority for now.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

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