Plot summary, which is necessary to the discussion after the cut:
THE SCENE IS NEW YORK CITY IN THE 1870's. A letter summons young Megan Kincaid to the house on Washington Square. In a startling interview the master of the house, Brandon Reid, informs her that he wishes her to devote herself to moody, unbalanced Jeremy, Mrs. Reid's son by her previous husband, Brandon's younger brother Dwight. Dwight Reid's brilliant career as New York District Attorney had been ended by a shocking and tragic accident with a gun--or so the newspapers had claimed--at the hands of this same guilt-ridden child, then aged seven. Against her better judgment, Megan accepts the challenge.
From the beginning Megan feels uneasy in the house; she senses the presence of lurking evil, of mysterious emotional undercurrents, of relationships that are not what they appear to be. She does not know whom to trust--the haughty yet strangely sad beauty, Leslie Reid, or the somber, fascinating master of the house, whose warm voice belies his cold, grave manner. She finds herself irresistibly drawn toward him, and their growing mutual attraction is duly noted by interested members of the household. When Megan realizes fully the extent of her own feelings, she knows she cannot honorably remain in the Reid home. Yet she also knows that if she goes, Jeremy will be left alone in world, irretrievably lost.
This book was part of my gothic romance October binge read. I actually have another Whitney (which has one of the most awful covers ever, by the way) that I haven't quite gotten to, and may not for a while at this point.
I picked up this one because I saw that it was highly recommended by several people I follow both here and on goodreads. I am really happy that I did, because it was a fantastic read.
Phyllis Whitney is America's answer to Victoria Holt. She was born in Japan to American parents, and spent her early years in Asia. Her gothics - although she disliked that term, preferring to call her work romantic suspense - have American settings. This is completely different from most of the writers of gothic romance, including Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Dorothy Eden, who set their books either in Europe, or more commonly, in England.
The book was published in 1962, and is set in 1870, in New York City. The atmosphere of the book is Victorian, and there are several scenes of Christmas in New York that were really deliciously evocative and perfect for the season. I had a pretty good sense of what had happened early on in the story, although there was a twist at the end that confused me and kept me guessing.
Windows on the Square has a lot in common with the tropes that I previously discussed in my review of The Mistress of Mellyn (which you can find here). The hero is a man of stature, and our heroine is a young and respectable woman of small means. There is a mystery at the center of the book, which our heroine must solve in order for the happy ending to occur.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to fans of older romance, gothic romance, and older romantic suspense. It is completely clean, with the contact between hero and heroine limited to a passionate kiss.
I am about to get spoilerific here. Forewarned is forearmed. If you want to read this book without knowing how it ends, you should skip what is left of this review.
As was the case in every other one of these gothics that I read, the murderer was a woman - in this case, Leslie Reid, the widow. Her behavior was completely appalling - not only did she murder her husband from behind a curtain, standing behind her son, she allowed the boy to take the blame for the shooting without any regard for the likely impact on his mental health.
On the one hand, this book was refreshing in the sense that women are acknowledged to be capable of both great evil as well as great good. Whitney certainly doesn't pull her punches about Leslie. She is terrible in every way. She is self-absorbed and consumed with her public reputation and beauty. She is resolutely shallow.
She murders her husband, Dwight, in an effort to maintain a facade of goodness, since he had been caught with his hand in the proverbial ethical cookie jar and was prepared to come clean publicly and seek redemption. She throws her son's mental and emotional health away in an effort to shield herself from responsibility for wrongdoing and in a continued effort to hide Dwight's misdeeds.
And yeah, let's take that apart shall we? This is a total rejection of motherhood. She frames her son for the murder of his father, going so far as to try to convince the boy, himself, that he has killed his beloved father, and, in addition, framing the child for further malicious misconduct in the house in the service of her lie. It is only when Megan is brought into the household by Brandon Reid, brother of Dwight, husband of Leslie, that someone advocates for poor Jeremy, the scapegoat.
And, the heroine, of course, is also a woman. It isn't Brandon Reid, or the tutor, who is capable of figuring out what really happened in that house behind the windows on the square. It is Megan who is the catalyst and the one person who cares enough about the little boy to keep digging for the truth.
Her motives are, relatively, pure. And we know this because Megan keeps digging even if it might turn out that Brandon is the one responsible for everything. She wants the truth more than she wants the man. And good for her. This is shades of Jane Eyre, of course, with Leslie in the role of Bertha, and Megan in the role of Jane.
It is a testament to Whitney's skill that Brandon is a credible suspect, even though the reader knows that in order for there to be a Happily Ever After, he must be if not completely innocent, substantially deceived by Leslie.
There was a lot to like about this book, although it may not be appealing to a reader with more modern sensibilities.