On the Edge of the Woods

On Winding Hill Road
by Diane Tyrrel
(Berkley, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-425-20195-3
While it certainly doesn’t break any new ground, Tyrrel’s latest gothic romance was a pleasant trip down memory lane. In fact, On Winding Hill Road is rather reminiscent of all those Barbara Michaels’ novels I read as a teenager.

Sarah Logan is in her mid-twenties and completely adrift. Having just overcome a mysterious illness, and having flitted from one career to the next, she agrees to accept the position of caretaker to a 13-year-old girl. The notion seems rather old-fashioned to Sarah, but her step-mother knows the Defalle family, and the girl, May, so Sarah figures what the heck. If anything she’ll get to live on a beautiful estate along the California coast and get paid a ridiculous salary.

Immediately upon her arrival, Sarah is overwhelmed by secrets. The Defalles seem to be hiding some sort of secret, and no one is being terribly forthcoming. For one thing, May’s beautiful and troubled mother committed suicide by throwing herself into the ocean – and rumor suggests that maybe it wasn’t a suicide. Then the master of the house comes home. Gatien Defalle is a former Formula One racecar driver whose career was ended by an accident. He’s an aloof, rather cold man – but Sarah cannot help but be attracted to him. The closer she gets to unraveling the Defalle family secrets, the closer she comes to falling under the spell of Gatien.

While set in present day California, Tyrrel’s second novel has a decidedly historical feel and tone to it. The mere fact that Sarah is essentially employed as a governess certainly adds to this effect. Also, while only in her twenties, Sarah has been through a lot in her young years – lending a wise-beyond-her-years tone in the first person narration. This is not a criticism to the book – in fact it makes the story all that more intriguing.

Most of the mystery here revolves around the death of May’s mother, Lisa. She was an impetuous young woman, and not the most stable, so her death by suicide doesn’t trouble all of the characters in the story. However, there are still whispers that maybe it was murder. Thankfully, Tyrrel doesn’t take the well-worn path here that would lead to the hero. Sure, Gatien is mysterious and brooding, but the idea that he might have murdered his wife is never really offered up as a viable option. Since this sort of “can she trust him?” gothic plot device has been beat like the proverbial dead horse, it was nice to not see it employed here.

It was also nice to read a gothic romance that had absolutely no paranormal elements. There’s always been a mix between the two subgenres, so gothic fans eager to stay away from the supernatural have always been at a disadvantage. Tyrrel also has an eloquent style, and evokes a wonderful sense of place. The northern California coast with its rocky cliffs and ocean views seem right at home with that traditional gothic setting – Victorian England.

The pace here is rather leisurely. While it’s all an interesting mix, readers who aren’t already fans of gothics may find themselves a bit bored at times. Also, the romance is a little obsessive as far as Sarah is concerned. Gatien is aloof bordering on cold fish – so her fascination with him seemed a bit off at time. Sure he’s a handsome racecar driver, and has some physical scars – but emotionally he screams off-limits for a vast majority of the story.

While it doesn’t stray from a timeworn formula, On Winding Hill Road is fun trip down memory lane. Diehard gothic fans should really enjoy this one, especially if they’re tired of wading through paranormals to get a little gothic atmosphere. With her first two books Tyrrel has shown readers that she’s devoted to the subgenre with all its baggage and trappings. Those who remember the gothics of a bygone era should get ready to welcome a new writer with open arms.

--Wendy Crutcher

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