by Laura Mills-Alcott, historical/paranormal (2003)
Five Star Publishing, $26.95, ISBN 1-594140898
I always enjoy a good melodramatic story if it is done right. Laura Mills-Alcott's The Briar And The Rose is filled to the brim with ripe and bombastic prose, melodramatically tortured or distressed characters, and rather over-the-top plot twists and turns that give this book an old-school pre-1990 romance novel feel to it, only without the romanticization of rape and physical abuse of those old-school romance novels. If you have a fondness for melodramas by Wendy Burge, for example, this book may be to your liking.
This story has everything and maybe a few kitchen sinks too - amnesia, tortured hero, pseudo-love triangles, big misunderstandings, paranormal past-life dreams, and even a Pygmalion scenario thrown in for good measure. Stories like this sort can go in either direction - up to the skies or down the drain - but Laura Mills-Alcott manage to put everything together pretty well to create a soap-operatic melodrama that I find very satisfying.
Devan, the Marquess of Castlereagh, lost his beloved Katherine five weeks ago when she perished in a fire before his eyes, alas right before they were going to elope. Now, Devan is acting all broody and tormented as he wanders around his Irish estate. The author doesn't mention billowing white shirts and standing in windswept moors with hair waving dramatically in the wind like some Tragedy of The Moors reenaction, but I'm sure that's just an oversight on Ms Mills-Alcott's part.
To Devan's surprise, he comes across a maid in his household staff that is a dead ringer for Katherine. Only this maid claims to have amnesia and is known only as Raven. As Raven goes about putting vases of fresh flowers all over the place, Devan realizes that Raven was the near-dead waif whom he took in a while back. Hoping to discover whether Raven is really Katherine, he moves her to a better bedroom, prompting speculations from the household staff that Raven will soon be serving the master in a more intimate manner.
Just like how a soap opera can be filled with implausible or just downright bizarre twists and turns, The Briar And The Rose soon has Devan gaping as he follows Raven at night and realizes that she goes about dancing (clothing optional) while being under some mysterious compulsion. This compulsion may be explained by the fact that Raven and Devan were star-crossed lovers in the past whose stories unfold via italicized fonts in dreams and flashbacks.
Meanwhile, Raven befriends the housekeeper Mrs Captain who will teach her the fine arts of becoming a lady in order to get a wealthy husband in return for Raven taking Mrs Captain's daughter with her when Raven moves up the social ladder. I wonder how a housekeeper can be so well-rounded educated like Mrs Captain (who can read, for example) while the said housekeeper's daughter seems to be stuck in some lower-class rut. But hey, at least Raven is doing something to better herself instead of whining and waiting for rescue, I guess. Raven decides to set her sights on Victor, the Duke of Brookshire. While it seems odd that she will consider Devan, a Marquess, out of her reach while she decides to chase after a Duke, I decide to just assume that this is because she isn't sure of Devan's feelings for her while Victor seems very interested in her.
As you may have deduced by now, the plot of this book is filled with holes and character motivations often don't make sense. There are some major big misunderstandings here that make Raven and Devan come off as really obtuse. But Ms Mills-Alcott has succeeded in putting together a story that is quite overwrought and over-the-top on one hand but also very readable on the other hand. This is because the emotions swirling between those two characters are so tempestuous and defiantly melodramatic that I can't help but be charmed. Daven is obligingly broody, tortured, self-absorbed, and manically obsessed. Raven is either very stupid or very sharp with very little in-between that she simultaneously stupefies and fascinates me. Be it hatred, anger, love, or desire, nobody seems to feel and do things halfway - they brood, they punch their fists on the other person's chest, and they French kiss until I'm sure the sounds can be heard all the way to Edinburgh.
If I have some dissatisfactions with this story, it's because the author has packed too many things in her story. I know the paranormal elements of the story is inspired by some Irish legend immortalized in the Dolly Parton song Barbara Allen, but the book is cluttered by so many things already that I'm not sure if this story even need a paranormal subplot in addition to the clutter that is already packing the pages.
The part of me that has a love-hate relationship with soap operas like Passions, which is also that part that has a soft spot for well-done if overcooked melodramas featuring the likes of silly and unnecessarily overwrought couples with names like Heathcliff and Catherine - well, that part of me is really taken with The Briar And The Rose.
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