by Julia London, contemporary (2004)
Berkley, $7.50, ISBN 0-425-19917-7
In a time when the possibility of alienating a reader could make the difference between bestsellerhood and banishment to post-contract-dump hell (at least, that's the impression I get from the way some authors and readers get so defensive about formulaic romance novels), Julia London comes up with what seems like an experiment of sorts for her, Miss Fortune. I think readers expecting another straightforward romance story like the stories of the previous two Lear sisters will be surprised at just how much this book resembles, structurally, a chick-lit novel. The story has more emphasis on first-class loser Rachel Lear getting her act together. Her romance with Flynn Oliver is one of those things that happen on her way there. Unlike a chick-lit novel, however, the story also occasionally provides the reader a glimpse from the hero's point-of-view and the romance is stronger and more optimistic than that in a typical chick-lit novel. Perhaps Julia London is testing the waters to see how her books will fare if she moves deeper into the Bridget Jones mud pool.
The back blurb is appropriately vague and I can see why. The actual premise of Miss Fortune is actually not new but the author sets up the story in such a way that the reader discovers more about Flynn Oliver only through Rachel's point of view so my saying anything more about Flynn would be a spoiler. So let me try and give a synopsis that is as close to the back blurb as possible.
Rachel is a loser. A too-stupid-to-live loser who is thirty years old but has no direction in life, no career, lets her stupid ex-boyfriend mooch on her, and is so broke while she cannot even bring herself to ask that ex-boyfriend for her money back even as she feeds him whenever he drops by. Rachel also lets everybody and her brother use her. She knows she's being used but hey, I don't know. The author lets me know that Aaron Lear, her father, spent too many years browbeating the overweight plain Rachel until she decides to live in her own dreamworld where if she lets everyone take advantage of her, she can be her own person. Or something. To sum it up, Rachel is a loser.
Normally I would be the first to issue a fatwa on creatures like Rachel but Ms London knows how stupid her heroine is. Trust me, she knows. Anyone who can overcome her initial revulsion at Rachel's personality to keep reading past the first fifty pages will definitely know because Ms London isn't above taking a few pointed jabs at Rachel through Rachel's only slightly more practical spell-dabbling friend Dagne Delaney as well as through other secondary characters. Because the author has self-awareness where her heroine is concerned, I soldier on, certain that there will be some good character development taking place as the story progresses.
Rachel takes up temp jobs to pay the bills. Her father is rich but he has disowned her in a last-ditch effort to get her to clean up her act and stop using her need to stay in college to work on some "dissertation" as an excuse to never grow up. As she bumbles her way through a weaving class, waitressing gig, and desk jobs while trying to lose weight, she keeps meeting the debonair English hunk Flynn Oliver. When he seems to reciprocrate her attraction to him, she is thrilled. This is her dream come true. Or is it?
It is easy to guess what Flynn is up to but that's not what this story is about. The story is about how Rachel finds love only to realize in the end, when her beautiful dream world comes crashing down around her, that she has to stop hiding from the world. Unfortunately, the author has Rachel following up on this epiphany by getting Rachel to hide in her room and refuse to meet anybody. Rachel is getting there, I get this impression from the story, but she won't get there at the last page, maybe later down the road. There is some sort of payoff for me after enduring through Rachel's dim-witted antics, although it is quite a disappointing payoff nonetheless because Rachel doesn't quite get it yet by the last page.
The strange thing is, while at first Rachel is akin to a walking trainwreck to me, I actually start to emphatize with her as the story progresses. In a way, Rachel is a product of actually very real insecurities a person could experience living under an overdemanding totalitarian father who keeps comparing her to her overachieving sisters while ruthlessly belittling everything she says or does. I may not agree with her and I certainly hope I was never as stupid as her when I was her age but in a way, I can understand what she is going through.
How does this happen? Julia London is a very sneaky woman. Even at Rachel's most exaggerated dimbulb moments, the tone of the story is such that Ms London is never trying to force me into seeing Rachel as a lovable giddy cow. She never passes Rachel off as anything but what I get: a woman who has no self-esteem of her own that she lets people walk all over her because she doesn't want confrontations in her life. I am free to loathe her or adore her. If I loathe her, Ms London has the secondary characters such as Dagne commiserating with me. If I adore her, I will laugh along with the hilarious addled emails from Rachel's grandmother to her. By being aware of her heroine's strengths and flaws, Ms London presents Rachel, warts and all, to me and tells me, hey, this is Rachel's story, she's going to fall in love, take it or leave it. By doing this, Ms London allows me to make my own opinion about Rachel. Along the way, having Ms London showing me so well what makes Rachel tick, I find that while I often cringe at Rachel's decisions in life (her grand actions at the climax of the story are truly "What on earth is that nitwit thinking?" material) I find myself viewing Rachel as a two-dimensional character.
Because so little of this story is from Flint's point of view, he remains a question mark to the end and because of this, the romance between him and Rachel doesn't feel as credible as it should have been. Still, there is a whimsical love-at-first-sight/soulmate overtone to their relationship that I find charming. Normally I will puke at the whole oversweet "soulmate" nonsense, mind you, but Ms London manages to be sentimental without going overboard with the sugar. Wait, I just remember Ms London's horrifying Hallmarkish epilogue in this story. Let me just say that this is one story where a death would be a satisfying conclusion instead of an annoying Donald Trump wannabe walking off scot-free, give or take a few feet of his colon, into a sunset made red and orange by the bleeding pancreas of diabetics who surely cannot survive such saccharine.
Miss Fortune is a book that will divide readers, I suspect. Heck, I have mixed feelings about this book, although that's mostly because Rachel doesn't grow up as much as I'd like her to be. Rachel is a very difficult heroine to like and I don't blame readers who put the book down. The thing is, I would love to say that readers would be surprised with a jolly good story if they soldier on to the end, but I can't. The best I can say is that Miss Fortune is an interesting story that entertains me despite my reservations because it is different from the usual fare and Rachel is an intriguing if not entirely likeable heroine to carry this heroine-centric story. This is one book that requires the reader to take a chance on it, I'd say, so if you have $7.50 to spare and don't mind a story that would work up some strong emotions in you in return for what may be a good time with an interesting story that reads more like a script for a romantic comedy movie rather than a romance novel tailor-made to the current formula. Let me know how it goes.
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