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Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

Belleweather, by Susanna Kearsley, carries the distinction of a front-cover blurb by Diana Gabaldon, and readers are sure to draw parallels between the work of the two authors. Both Gabaldon’s Outlander series and Bellewether are historic fiction with a tinge of the supernatural. Both feature elements of romance. Both have engaging female characters. But there are some big differences between the two as well.

The most obvious difference is in scope. Outlander is an ongoing multi-volume epic following several generations of an extended family (family by birth, adoption, marriage and choice) across two different timelines (historic and near-modern) and a couple continents. Bellewether is a self-contained story, though it also features two timelines and themes of family.

There’s a glaring but welcome content difference, too. It may not be popular to call this out, but Gabaldon’s book is full of rape and problematic depictions of ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. Bellewether is 100% rape-free and does somewhat better in terms of representation, though it still follows a heavily white, cis-gendered, hetero sexual cast with people of other identities relegated to supporting roles.

All this to say that Bellewether feels like a more comfortable, easier-to-digest alternative to Outlander. It’s not going to satisfy your craving for doorstopper novel after doorstopper novel, but if you’re looking for a romantic man in uniform, family dynamics, and light fantasy elements, this is your story.

Enough with the comparison, on to the book itself.

Bellewether follows two stories.

In the modern day, Charley Van Hoek has recently accepted a position as a curator for a small historic home museum. It’s a step down from her previous position, but it allows her to help her late brother’s college-aged daughter cope with her recent loss and deal with the aftermath of the death. Alongside her duties, she tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to our other narrator.

Lydia Wilde has also suffered loss. Her mother passed away, and now she has had to take her place, not just in the women’s work of household chores, but also as the mediator between her father and two brothers. Complicating matters is her brother’s PTSD from the French and Indian War, where he saw Lydia’s fiance, his close friend, killed by enemy soldiers. This flares up when the family is charged with housing two captured French soldiers.

We also get some POV chapters from one of the soldiers, Jean-Philippe, a French-Canadian man. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that a slow-burn romance develops between Lydia and Jean-Philippe. Very slow burn, due to a language barrier and the war and other complications.

Jean-Philippe was the weakest part of the story for me. While he is, at heart, a good person, he’s a certain breed of romance hero who I don’t much like. He falls in love with the idea of Lydia, and becomes rather possessive of her. Not in a jealous and controlling sort of way, but in a “wanting her to be his” sort of way. Some people enjoy this sort of romance, but I do not.

There’s a modern romance too, between Charley and the contractor in charge of some restoration work on the Wilde house. Sam Abrams is more my kind of hero, the kind who shows his affection by just randomly being there when you need him and knowing how to fix things. Also he has a rescue beagle, so you know he’s a good guy.

Local legend has it that Jean-Philippe was murdered by one of Lydia’s brothers, and that he haunts the house and surrounding woods still. Charley is drawn in to the romantic ghost story and wants to separate fact from fiction, but the museum board believes they should focus on Lydia’s brother, the most famous resident of the home, who became a hero of the Revolutionary War.

Over all, this book is a cozy read. Despite the threat of a possible doomed romance, there’s not a lot of sense of danger here. The conflicts are more between people who want different things for different reasons. The villains are more obnoxious than physically threatening. The romances develop gradually over time.

Readers of romance novels should note, this is definitely more historic fiction than romance. There’s no smoldering love scene, and there’s not a lot of romance genre tropes at play here — no love triangle, no big misunderstanding, no jealous ex out for revenge, no marriage of convenience. Even though Lydia and Jean-Philippe’s relationship is at the crux of the story, because they spend so much of it unable to communicate with each other, just noticing small things about the other to appreciate, it doesn’t feel like a romance story.

And while I found this shelved on NetGalley in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section, it’s not going to check the right boxes for fans of fantasy, either. The ghost story is primarily framing for the two stories that play out. It is otherwise a true-to-life depiction of history and modern day, without magic or other fantastical elements, just a ghost that may or may not be haunting Wilde House.

And so this book is for those people who like that specific genre, historic fiction with just a touch of romance, mystery, and the supernatural. For those niche readers, this is a very well-written, enjoyable book with (mostly) likeable characters, touching moments, and a satisfying ending. I enjoyed my time reading it and I appreciate that NetGalley and the publisher gave me the opportunity to read and review it.

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