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The Splendour Falls

by Susanna Kearsley

Two years ago, Susanna Kearsley won England’s $20,000 Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize for her romance novel, Mariana. Kearsley was 28, living in Port Elgin, Ontario and waiting tables in a local restaurant. She still lives this poetic version of the young writer’s life, continuing to mine material from the dining banter of locals and mocking another romance writer myth: insatiable opulence fed by enormous advances and royalties.

Kearsley’s latest romantic mystery, The Splendour Falls, is set in the wine-making village of Chinon, France and shifts between the Middle Ages, World War II, and the present as a muddle of tourists inhabit the Hotel de France, each with their own motivation for scratching history’s surface. Chapters of the book begin with Tennyson – the title, too, is borrowed from the mushy poet – and other literary allusions suspend the novel above the more plot-driven members of the genre. This should not be taken for depth, however. A character who reads James Joyce’s Ulysses can still lack complexity if the author does not explore his potential. And amid the swirl of romantic possibilities and murders, Kearsley overlooks some basics of characterization and dramatic momentum.

The young British narrator, Emily, ventures to France to rendezvous with her unreliable cousin, Harry, who is introduced in chapter one as complex and likable. Harry doesn’t show up, though, and his absence for most of the book, while intended to heighten the mystery, is given so little attention he’s hardly missed. Meanwhile, a string of men are introduced, all suitably handsome and quirky and international, and we wait for Emily to get over her parents’ divorce and jump into something amorous with at least one of them.

This doesn’t really happen. The Splendour Falls is a genteel romance, one of those that forbids sex, exposed breasts, harsh words, or even the direct acknowledgment of prurient interest. It is never clear which of the men actually interests Emily since the narrative excludes outright feminine desire.

Generic limitations lead to other problems. For example, though the plot’s historical aspects are intriguing, asides regarding the Holocaust are sensational and melodramatic. Also, the author’s extensive research often reads like extensive research.

In 1995, Kearsley offered the following tip to aspiring romance writers: “Don’t be afraid of clichés – there’s a reason for them.” This philosophy explains Kearsley’s stylistic mannerisms – back-to-back ellipses abound, as do men with “a hint of regret” on their faces. Since Kearsley seems concerned with the messes history makes, she might consider that clichés do nothing to change the world; they function to keep it the same.