by Cheryl Bolen, historical (2005)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7790-4
I have a hunch that the "Christmas" thing - the hero and the heroine get hitched around Christmas - is a last-moment addition to give this book a seasonal feel that coincides with its publication date. Unfortunately, that's not the only thing that feels artificial about this story.
One Golden Ring has a familiar premise: our heroine Fiona Hollingsworth, driven to desperation by her brother to raise some funds (twenty-five thousand pounds, to be exact, as requested by the bandits in Spain that are holding her brother for ransom), offers our non-aristocratic Cit hero Nicholas Birmingham a bargain: she'll marry him and he'll pay off the ransom for her brother's return. Nicholas is one of the wealthiest stockbrokers in England and therefore it will make sense that he will want an aristocratic wife of good pedigree for a wife, right? Nicholas, however, is not willing to be married to an aristocratic wife for all the wrong reasons, especially when he understandably believes that Fiona will resent him afterwards for being trapped in a marriage with him, a Cit. He offers Fiona the money but you know our romance heroines, right? She can't take the money! She'll just find another guy to offer her body to! Nicholas is attracted to Fiona since they first met so in the end he agrees to her proposal. So they marry by Christmas and yes, the honeymoon night is fabulous, thanks for asking.
That leaves the author with about two hundred more pages to go before she can end the story.
Ms Bolen makes a crucial mistake in getting her characters to connect so well with each other so fast. With their wedding vows still ringing in their ears, Fiona and Nicholas are quickly making fabulous love, having satisfying conversations, and being so comfortable in each other's company. He is soon doing all he can to make sure that her every wish and desire is met. She is determined to be a good wife to him and give him beautiful babies. Nicholas becomes the perfect husband: limitless credit and limitless ability to indulge the wife to the fullest. Fiona becomes the perfect woman: one look at Nicholas' daughter with a harlot and her understandable concerns about that daughter living with them dissipate completely. One look at Emmie's sad face and Fiona can always deduce the psychological vulnerabilities inside Emmie. Of course, Fiona always knows the correct things to say to Emmie that will boost Emmie's self-esteem. Fiona is Every Woman.
That still leaves the author with about one hundred something more pages to go before she can end the story.
When Fiona takes a breather in between Mary-Poppins-ing Nicholas' clan into being happier and psychologically more stable people that will make Dr Phil weep in awe, the author decides to push the internal conflict between Fiona and Nicholas to the forefront. You see, Fiona had her heart broken by the hero of the author's previous book The Counterfeit Countess when he fell in love with another woman and never actually reciprocated Fiona's feelings for him. Nicholas will spend a long time deciding that Fiona still loves Lord Warwick and will misread every glance Fiona gives to that man and misunderstand everything she says to delude himself further that he is not worthy of her affections. Meanwhile, his increasingly bizarre and even crazy responses to his delusions will hurt Fiona's feelings, as if Fiona isn't already muddled down with her own delusions that Nicholas is in love with his former mistress.
Here's what I don't understand: these characters are having a great time with each other. How can they be so freaking stupid as to assume that the other person doesn't love them even a little? Why oh why do these people have to be so silly that everything has to be spelled out literally to them? Ms Bolen makes Fiona so understanding and insightful about other people's motivations and such like the sensitive new age Mother Material that Fiona is so her one blind spot regarding Nicholas feels like a too-obvious plot contrivance that exists solely to pad the story. Likewise, Nicholas' continuous delusion that Fiona is in love with her ex doesn't make sense at all when Fiona is so obviously into his company and barely gives the other man a second glance. His lack of confidence about their differences in station also feels contrived because in other areas, Nicholas doesn't seem like he's a man who cares about what people think of him.
Basically, my problem with this story can be summed up thus: Fiona is so wise in everything but that one matter regarding Nicholas while Nicholas is the same regarding Fiona. These two characters are very likable at first but by the late quarter of the story, Ms Bolen has happily butchered her characters' likability when those two start grasping at straws to continuously doubt each other's fidelity and affections. Oh, he is looking at his ex-mistress! They must still be sleeping together! Oh, he really doesn't love her then! SHE IS A FAILURE AS A WOMAN! Oh, she is looking at her ex! She still loves that man! He knew it! HE DOESN'T DESERVE HER! AND HE MUST THEN DRIVE HER AWAY! FOR HER OWN GOOD!
And because these characters' stupidity regarding each other does not gel with other aspects of their uber-perfect personalities, they come off as one-dimensional puppets blatantly manipulated by the author to play out a conflict that is obviously added to stretch the story to meet its word count. Fiona and Nicholas don't come off as spontaneous realistic characters anymore but instead robots without free will programmed to follow rigidly a script set out by the author. I cannot forget that Ms Bolen is forcefully pulling her characters' strings in this story and therefore I can never fully get into the story without seeing how forced and contrived everything about the story is.
The story, the characters, the resolution - all of them come off as really fake and forced. That is this story's biggest failure at the end of the day.
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