by Caroline Linden, historical (2009)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-170635-6
A View To A Kiss is Caroline Linden's take on the legend of Cupid and Psyche transplanted to the tumultuous Hanoverian era of England, when Princess Caroline of Brunswick and the future King George IV are ready for the royal rumble while the House of Lords are seething with power struggle between the Whigs and Tories. I'm sure you know of Cupid and Psyche. No?
Well, legend goes that Cupid visited his lady love Psyche under the cover of darkness, with him making her vow that she will never try to catch a glimpse of his face. Of course she ended up trying to do just that, only to lose her love and have to undergo all kinds of test under the eye of her disapproving mother-in-law to win back her love.
Here, things are a little different. Our heroine, 22-year old Mariah Dunmore, is a bored young lady wishing that the men she meets will interest her enough to consider marrying one of them. She gets what she wishes for, although not in the way she envisions things to be, when a chance encounter with a stranger in a darkened room leads to nightly (but somewhat chaste... for a while) encounters in her bedroom. For the first time, our heroine isn't just feeling the invigorating thrill of doing something forbidden, she is also feeling a degree of sexual awakening that delights as well as scares her. She tries to tell herself to be sensible, but a heart beating wild and blood running heatedly in one's veins will never allow one to be wise in such a situation.
The man in question is Harry Sinclair, supposedly a nobody who is drafted as a spy by Lord Stafford to join a team that work overnight 24/7 all week to protect three important members of the English aristocracy, of which Mariah's father is one of them. Harry is a master of disguise, playing two different principal roles and several smaller ones in the play he is ordered to participate in. But one sight of Mariah is all it takes for him to lose his senses and play Romeo to her Juliet.
A View To A Kiss is a gorgeously written story that has me reading every word as if they are fine poetry to be savored slowly. I love how Ms Linden carefully, sometimes subtly, and sometimes extravagantly describe each of Mariah's emotion and feeling. I sometimes feel as if I'm living inside this woman's head. Mariah is a spoiled and self-absorbed heroine who is not too bright as well, let me warn readers who may not enjoy this kind of heroines, but Ms Linden succeeds in letting me understand and appreciate Mariah as who she is: a spoiled and sheltered privileged young woman who has never any reason to look beyond her safe and secure world until Harry challenges her to take a small peek into the world beyond.
The romance, however, leaves me with some mixed feelings. I wish the author has written the characters as younger. Mariah as a 22-year old doesn't cut it, not with the way she behaves here. Judith Ivory had it right with Beast when she had her spoiled heroine as a very young lady, and I suspect that Ms Linden could have achieved the same degree of success if she had Mariah being 17 or 18. Mariah doesn't achieved any degree of maturity by the time the story concludes so there is a rather unsatisfying lack of closure, I feel, in Mariah's character development. But the author has shown me occasional glimmers of possibility that once Mariah sees with her own eyes more of the world, she will become a more mature person.
Which brings me to another interesting potential dilemma: if she becomes more mature, will Harry still find her attractive? Heh. The thing is, I understand Harry's attraction to Mariah, I do. He comes off like a charming poet at heart who believes in romance and all things pretty, but circumstances in his life had forced him to become a spy and do all kinds of sordid things. Of course Mariah is beautiful to him - she's an idealized version of innocence and purity in his eyes, so he puts her on a pedestal and worships her for being the feminine representative of all he has lost in his life. That is my take on his attraction to Mariah, anyway, and I strongly suspect that his attraction to her will wane once she grows up and stops being the little princess he adores so much.
Let me make this clear: I don't find this romance unbelievable or badly written. Oh, I believe one's first love can be so beautiful - it's just that I doubt these two will be happy with each other for long, heh. But since things always work out for the best in romance novels, maybe I'll just lay my cynicism to rest for now and believe that these two will be happy for a long time. Ms Linden has done an amazing thing here: she has managed to sell me a romance which I still believe is more like puppy love rather than something that will last.
My problem with this story is not the romance. It's with the spy subplot. The subplot here is classic Spy For Dummies material. For example, Harry's various aliases in this story are Henry Wroth, Henry Arthur, and Henry Towne. See a pattern here? Now, perhaps some spies may have problems remembering their various aliases, but come on, we are talking about the incestuously small circles of the Ton here. How hard is it for someone to ask a few questions and discover that there are three fellows named Henry seen in the vicinity of the three people that radical militants may be plotting against? Also, I can see through the ringleader's technique and his identity long before Harry finally joins the dots and gets a clue. Come on, he's the spy while I'm only the dotty reader, so why am I the one who gets it some 200 pages before this fellow? Harry's less than brilliant accomplishments, coupled with the ease of him getting sidetracked in his mission to sing love songs to the most beautiful sound he's ever heard, make me wonder whether he should have taken another vocation - a poet or something.
But the straw that breaks the camel's back is when the author sweeps in with an out of the blue twist that solves the problem about the disparity of status between the hero and the heroine late in the story so that those two can get married. Come on, Ms Linden, that is not gracefully done at all, performed with all the subtlety of a pregnant elephant crashing into the third act of Swan Lake to experience a loud and messy labor on stage.
A good author can sell me a romance, no matter how implausible or unrealistic the chances of a happily ever after may be, and Ms Linden demonstrates that she is definitely good enough in A View To A Kiss. Unfortunately, the far from elegant spy subplot and the poke-in-the-eye that is the "twist" at the end are just not well done. I have to deduct a considerable amount of points from the final score on principal, even if a part of me still aches from the exquisitely written romance between Harry and Mariah. Ah, it pains me to do this, but still, I have a reputation to maintain, so please accept my dearest apologies, Ms Linden.
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