The Smile of an Angel has fallen victim to one of the cruelest of publisher’s tricks…the too-revealing back cover. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, but I would have enjoyed it even more if the back cover hadn’t summarized the plot to within 35 pages of the ending. Fortunately, this romance is more about how its characters feel about events than about the events themselves. So, even if you’ve made the same mistake I did, and you’ve read that blabbermouth cover, read the book anyway. It has a lot of content that the publishers couldn’t cram into two paragraphs.
The Smile of an Angel runs on two tracks. The main track is the story of Emily Westmoreland and Jake Bean. Emily is the youngest daughter of Michael and Anne Westmoreland. Michael is a mountain climber and a cinematographer; he and Jake have just come back from an expedition Jake led. Michael has invited Jake home with him; Emily has left her cabin on the Tallahatchie River Bottom to welcome her father back from his last climb before retirement. Jake and Emily meet and worlds collide. Both know, instantly, that they have met their true love. Jake has reservations, but Emily, raised in the shadow of her parents’ happy marriage, has none. This is it, she knows.
The second track is made up of excerpts from Anne Westmoreland’s diary. In the beginning, Anne’s description of her idyllic marriage and her passionate relationship with her husband of 35 years struck me as just too good to be true. The author attempts to show Anne and Michael as both the ideal married couple and ideal parents. Paradoxically, her effort backfires, and I found my belief in their perfection dwindling, rather than increasing. Once tragedy strikes - and it strikes when Michael agrees to join Jake Bean for one last climb - the pain and rage Anne feels at seeing her vigorous husband in a continuing coma were convincing where their passion was not.
Michael’s tragedy drives Jake and Emily apart. Jake is consumed with guilt because, if he hadn’t asked Michael to be his cinematographer on a Himalayan climb, Michael would not have been caught by the avalanche that left him comatose. Jake wants to comfort Emily but hesitates because he knows he is the reason she needs comforting. Neither he nor Emily know how to cross the gulf that develops between them just when they need each other most.
Characterization is Peggy Webb’s strong point. Her deft handling of her secondary characters counteracted the sometimes too reverential depictions of Anne and Michael. For instance, I was charmed by Emily’s sidekick, Gwendolyn, and a little sorry when Gwendolyn fell in love with another skunk and disappeared back into the wild. Emily’s managing older sister and her stable, comforting brother were also conveyed convincingly and added depth and believability to the story of a family caught up in a tragedy.
I recommend The Smile of an Angel as a romance that examines emotions not often dealt with by the genre - grief, anger, and guilt - in a realistic but not unhopeful way. I do have one strong recommendation: do not - repeat, not - peak at the ending. Ms. Webb has one more twist to the plot that those dastardly writers of the back cover managed not to reveal.
--Nancy J. Silberstein