by Mary Ellen Dennis, historical (2011, reissue)
Sourcebooks Casablanca, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-4982-2
The Greatest Love On Earth seems like a hyperbolic title begging to be proven wrong, but it's a play on the fact that the hero Brian O'Connor and heroine Calliope Kelley start out as circus folks. The greatest show on Earth - get it? Only, we are talking about the Sean Kelley Circus, not... oh, does it matter? The circus thing gets thrown out of the picture pretty quickly and we are soon in more familiar territory: rich people's ballrooms. I thought I was getting a story about love under the big top, but then again, I thought I would wake up one day seventeen and beautiful and adored.
Anyway, the story. Brian was taken in by Calliope's parents when he was orphaned, and Calliope grew up believing that she'd marry Brian. Then drama happens, the circus is in trouble, more drama happens, and then there is even more drama, until these two are separated, only to be reunited when she's now taken in by a wealthy couple while he too is a wealthy man as he'd been reunited with his biological father.
More drama happens, and if the non-stop drama of evil villains scheming to constantly tear down Calliope isn't enough, Brian turns into a jackass who acts without consideration to Calliope's wishes or feelings. But because every other man in this story is an evil pervert, it's not like Calliope has any other option for a boyfriend, since suffocating Brian by showing his face deep in elephant dung is not exactly an acceptable ending for a romance novel.
This book was first published in 1997, but it feels like a book that would fit in better in, oh, 1977, when romance heroines constantly shriek and throw temper tantrums while heroes are assholes who weave elaborate schemes in their heads about how the heroine is the biggest whore in the world. Indeed, Brian's imagination here is pretty impressive in that, even with no evidence at hand, he already has this wild story about how Calliope betrayed their love by deliberately running off to play at being a rich lady. If you read this book and come to the scene that causes their estrangement, you will realize how insane this guy has to be even think of that. For someone who claims to love the woman that much, it sure doesn't take much for him to get him to think the worst of her.
Even better, after confronting Calliope with his fantasy "my beloved is a lying whore" scenario, he first accuses her of deliberately betraying their love, has sex with her (in romance novels, being called nasty names never fails to make a heroine randy), and then tells her that he will announce his engagement to another woman in the next breath. Oh, and he tells her that he's doing all this for the sake of her reputation. Oh, and they can still coexist happily like brother and sister. I wish I'm joking, but I'm not. Seriously, this guy is pretty amazing in how he can justify his own selfish antics and self-serving decisions into something magnanimous. Along the way, he high-highhandedly makes decisions for Calliope, often bullying her into agreeing with him or, often, trapping her with his decision in a manner that she can't refuse (such as by announcing his decision for her in public).
Calliope isn't exactly a sympathetic heroine, although I don't think any woman deserves to be saddled with an asshole like Brian. She has this tendency to act before she thinks, and often, she could have avoided a lot of drama if she had talked to Brian. Wait, scratch that. Even if she talks, Brian won't listen. These two are completely hopeless in communicating, so molehills never fail to become mountains in this story.
In a way, the constant drama gives this story a rather quaint old-school train wreck factor as the villains are really nasty, the melodrama just keeps coming, and everyone tends to speak and act in an overwrought manner. Unfortunately, the heroine is an impulsive and headstrong nitwit who is wrong more often than not and her beau is a mean selfish twit who shows throughout the course of the story that he has no problems coming up with nonsensical justifications for his more reprehensible actions. Oh, and he is stupid as well. With nobody to root for, I feel like I'm stuck in a party full of unpleasant people with no way out.
And really, I wanted a story set in the circus.
At any rate, reading this book is like being forced to babysit two unruly children who just won't sit down still for even a second. By the time I reach the last page, I just want some peace and quiet because, ugh, Calliope and Brian can really get on my nerves so often.
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