Harlequin Historical #90
She gazed into eyes that held love and joy and laughter. The laughter that had always been in him—only needing her to bring it out. ‘Oh, my dearest,’ she answered, her heart swelling with wonder and gratitude for the beautiful man who bent above her. ‘You’re Love.’STRANGER IN MY ARMS
My Absolute Favorite Historical Romance
There are many older romances I like out of pure nostalgia. When I re-read them, I know they’re not perfect, yet I enjoy them nevertheless. Stranger in My Arms by Louisa Rawlings first caught my attention over thirty years ago, and I love it more today than I did back then. It even earned the treasured seal of approval from Kathe Robin, the legendary book reviewer and editor of the now, sadly, defunct Romantic Times.
Although it’s a bit on the short side, this is the best romance novel, historical or otherwise, that I’ve ever read. I have re-read this book easily a dozen times in thirty years and am always stirred by its intensity.
A Harlequin Historical published in 1991, this book is 300 pages of tiny type-face, and there’s no room for it to lag. Every character, no matter how minor, be he an innkeeper doting on his guests; an avaricious villain intent upon deception; a mute orphaned boy; or a mercury-addicted nobleman mourning over the deaths and losses incurred during the French Revolution; or a jealous camp-follower, every individual in this novel has a vivid sense of realism and depth.
Charmiane de Viollet is a 22-year-old widow returning with her exiled family to Paris. She never witnessed the horrors of the French Terror and, even though her late husband was an abusive beast, she is still filled with the optimism of youth. Her loyalty becomes torn between her devotion to her Ancien Regime family and her love for a parvenu upstart. At times, she is an imperfect heroine, too trusting and too impetuous, but also generous, refined, and filled with joy.
Adam-Francois Bouchard, Baron Moncalvo, a Colonel (then later a General) in Napoleon’s Grand Army, is the kind of hero I adore: blond, masculine, and handsome– but not pretty–, a soldier, gruff, awkward with women, a bad dancer, loyal to his country, and a man of unrelenting honor. I don’t usually like soft heroes and can tolerate “jerkiness” to a fairly extreme degree. However, it is the imperfect, all-too-human heroes who captivate me most.
Then there is Adam’s twin brother, Noel-Victor, a mere corporal in the cavalry and a charming rake. But, while his looks match his twin’s, they are two different souls: one is filled with light and laughter, the other with darkness and dread.
The first three chapters deal with Adam’s and Noel’s first meeting with Charmiane. The magical enchantment that follows at a ball attended by Napoleon himself is the stuff of dreams. Charmiane’s eyes shine in devotion to her dashing hero, and they dance the hours away and later bask in the romantic afterglow of that one perfect night…
If you don’t fall in love with Charmiane and Adam within these first chapters, then this may not be the book for you. As I am a sentimental sap, I weep every single time I read this book.
All the Tropes I Love in Romance
This exquisite gem of a novel is filled with sensitive writing, passion, warfare, sadness, and love. And so much more.
The love letters: While Adam is off fighting, he writes to his cherished Charmiane, referring to her as his “Dear Helen.” In these correspondences, the yearning he feels for their long-distant love is so palpable, as well as his disillusionment and horror in what seems a meaningless war.
There is the brother vs. brother trope for a woman’s love. I admit to a bit of hypocrisy in my reading; I hate love triangles involving the hero and two women, especially when siblings are involved. But the heroine who is torn between two brothers trope, when done well, then that’s one I can appreciate. And if it’s between twins brothers, even more so. Here, this plot point is executed perfectly, for what we see is not always true.
There are even bodice ripper elements, so lest you be warned, if you’re not expecting that in a Harlequin Historical.
Adam is a leader of men, stoic and brave… Yet, he is so filled with pain that even he is brought to tears. This man has reason to cry. Adam has no mommy issues, no woman who hurt him in the past. There is no other woman, period, but Charmiane. Instead, what torments him is the awfulness of war: the meaningless deaths of his compatriots; the frozen and rotting flesh of his fellow soldiers’ corpses in the Russian snow; the depths of depravity; and the loss of his humanity that overwhelms him. He weeps for his loss of his soul… Only Charmiane can bring it back to him.
Unlike many of my nostalgia loves, this book gets better with each reading. Every time I find something new to appreciate. I notice most of my favorite historical romances are not set in the all-too-common Georgian-Regency-Victorian era of England, but in Medieval Europe, or set in other eras in nations like Spain, France, Russia, or the United States. For example, I enjoy Civil War romances in the American South and Napoleonic Era romances based in France, with French protagonists. They are so rare, and when they’re good, they’re excellent. I suppose my tastes are an anomaly in this genre, and that’s why I read mostly older works.
Stranger in My Arms is, for me, the culmination of a romance novel. I have never read one that I enjoyed more on a deep, emotional level. Both the hero and heroine change and grow as they suffer and cope with loss. Adam and Charmiane learn to adapt to the new world around them and, in doing so, learn to love each other anew. This isn’t an easy love; it’s a larger-than-life love, set in the epic time of the great Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who could lead his men to the ends of the earth, despite his hubris and tragic downfall.
There is a sequel to Stranger in My Arms, Wicked Stranger. While not as thrilling and emotional, it still features a great hero, the flip side to Adam’s melancholy and reserve.
Louisa Rawlings wrote a few books, and each one that I have read so far is wonderful. Stolen Spring is another of her fantastic books that I’ve reviewed. Louisa Rawlings, aka Ena Halliday, aka Sylvia Halliday, please write more! Your talents should be more widely known and revered!
Final Analysis of Stranger in My Arms
Stranger in My Arms is sublime perfection, from the first, almost whimsical, paragraph:
“If Charmiane de Viollet remembered the Reign of Terror at all, it was as a vision of Aunt Sophie running about shrieking, her fleshy bosoms popping from her bodice as she snatched wildly at the canary that had escaped its cage. The rest of the story had been recited to Charmiane so often that it had assumed its own reality: the desperate flight from their townhouse in Paris—the carriage loaded with silver and luggage and oddments of furniture—the mad race for the Swiss border, the mobs and the looted carriage, Papa’s final fatal stroke. Very dramatic, very graphic, especially as Uncle Eugene told it, but strangely unengaging. For Charmiane, the single emotion connected with that event would always be levity—the remembrance of those pink mounds bouncing absurdly against Sophie’s stays in delicious counterpoint to her squeaks and wails.”
To their last beautiful affirmation of eternal adoration:
“He lifted his head and at last grinned down at her. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘who am I?’
“She gazed into eyes that held love and joy and laughter. The laughter that had always been in him—only needing her to bring it out. ‘Oh, my dearest,’ she answered, her heart swelling with wonder and gratitude for the beautiful man who bent above her. ‘You’re Love.’”