Brew a cup of tea, curl up in your favorite armchair and escape into Minnesota author Julie Klassen's new Regency romance, "The Secret of Pembrooke Park." But don't do it late at night, especially not if you're alone.
It's called a romance, but "Pembrooke" is no bodice-ripper. It's a delightfully creepy period mystery full of eerie twists and turns. Think Jane Austen mixed with Sarah Waters.
"Pembrooke" — a finalist for a 2015 Minnesota Book Award — is the story of Abigail Foster, whose family's fortune is lost, forcing them to give up their home in London and their place in society. Worse, Abigail's lifelong love, Gilbert, whom she had hoped to marry, has turned his attentions to her younger sister. The cad!
But all isn't lost. A distant relative has heard of their circumstances and come to their aid, offering Pembrooke Park, a grand country estate, for the Fosters to live in free of charge. The catch? They must agree to stay for a full year. And oh, by the way, the place has been mysteriously shuttered for two decades. But never mind about that.
Heartbroken by Gilbert's interest in her sister, Abigail trundles off to open up Pembrooke Park for her family and start anew. And here's where the story really picks up steam.
Abigail enters the house and, along with decades of cobwebs and dust, finds cups crusted with old tea still on the table, beds unmade, coats still hanging on hooks by the door. It's clear that the Pembrookes fled in a hurry. But nobody will tell her why.
When William Chapman, the handsome curate from the church next door, lets spill the legend of a secret room in the house filled with treasure, she can't believe her luck. Finding it could restore her family fortune. But the eerie noises and footsteps she hears in the middle of the night make her suspect she's not the only one looking. Or is something else haunting Pembrooke's halls?
Then anonymous letters start arriving — pages of a diary written by someone who lived at Pembrooke Park in the past. But they eerily mimic Abigail's actions, leading her to wonder who, or what, is watching her.
Regency readers are notoriously picky, and purists might have trouble with some of Abigail's interactions with William as their friendship develops. Letting a man into one's bedchamber? Being escorted by a man her family doesn't know? To Austen-philes, these won't quite ring true.
But get past it, people. Let yourself get lost in the mystery and the funny and smart banter between Abigail and William. Klassen does a great job of crafting a story full of mystery, set in an English country village with colorful characters that her readers will no doubt hope to visit again.
Wendy Webb is the author of "The Vanishing" and "The Tale of Halcyon Crane." She lives in Minneapolis.