by Mary Jo Putney, historical (2010)
Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0329-8
Never Less Than A Lady follows Loving A Lost Lord, with both books being part of the Lost Lords series. While I feel that this book can stand alone, I'd suggest that readers new to the series read the previous book first because our hero and heroine are major secondary characters in that book and their relationship began in that book.
By the way, I am going to reveal a major spoiler in this review. I'm sorry about that, but there is no way I can avoid mentioning this spoiler as it is the biggest reason why I have a big problem with the story. Therefore, if you don't want to be spoiled, please hit the back button. And with that PSA out of the way, let's move on to the synopsis.
Midwife Julia Bancroft first met Major Alexander Randall in the previous book when she chaperoned the heroine of the previous book and encountered Randall, who disliked and mistrusted the woman Julia was chaperoning. By the end of that book, however, both of them acknowledged to themselves that there is an attraction between them, but they never acted on that attraction.
It's all about timing, of course. When this book opens, Randall receives a letter from his guardian, informing him that the Earl of Daventry - the guardian - had recently lost his only son and Randall is now the sole remaining heir to the title. The Earl pretty much orders Randall to quit butchering Spanish soldiers and come back to take his place in the English ton. Randall doesn't necessarily want to obey that man, since they have a hostile relationship that remains unabated, but he is tired of all the bloodshed of the war. Very well, he will resign from the army and take his place in society... but first, he will pay a visit to Scotland to catch up with his old friends.
As it happens, Julia, still a midwife in Scotland, is finally located by her late husband's... honestly, I don't know what to call him because the author seems to be suggesting early in the story that Joseph Crockett shared something beyond friendship with her late husband, but Ms Putney then switches path and never expands on that hint. I'd just call Crockett a cartoon villain because that's what he is. He is very, very, very evil. At any rate, he kidnaps Julia, and guess who arrives in Scotland in time to learn of her distress and come to her rescue.
The rest of the story is comparable to a typical romance written by Catherine Anderson. Julia, still scarred physically and mentally from being married to the Regency-era offspring of Freddy Kreuger and Jason Voorhees, will naturally be the focus of this story as our hero gives her TLC. There are plenty of messages about family, love, and what not. If you want to read about a heroine being TLC'ed out of her mental baggage while receiving some fine shagging on the side, this may just be the book for you.
For me, however, this book is boring at first. It is well-written and readable enough - we are talking about a book by Mary Jo Putney after all - but the characters seem like flat and uninteresting retreads.
Randall is one of the author's popular sensitive heroes without a context. What I mean is that Randall has his own issues, but somehow, he manages to become the wisest and most sensitive person around Julia. He instinctively recognizes her fears, manages to summon the patience to deal with her fear of intimacy, and loves her quickly and easily. Did the war turn him into such an unnaturally wise and sensitive man? I can only guess - Randall is just too perfect without the author showing me how he manages to attain such a state of enlightenment. He reminds me of that bore Michael Kenyon, come to think of it.
Julia is similarly perfect in that unique manner typical of romance heroines: even when her life is at stake, she only thinks of the safety of the people around her; backed against the wall with Randall offering her a lifeline via a marriage proposal, she still refuses because lud, she is selfless and she doesn't want to inconvenience anyone; and yet, despite being battered and beaten like a sack of turnips that became Mike Tyson's punching bag, she manages to innately recognize Randall's insecurities, saying and doing all the right things subsequently. How did this woman become so wise? I have no idea. She's just like that because the author makes her that way.
Both characters, therefore, don't feel like real people to me. They have all the typical traits of the author's characters in the past, but these traits are put together without really coming together to create a coherent personality, if I am making sense here.
The cartoon villain is ridiculous and can match anything that Catherine Anderson can produce after an inspired marathon of Looney Tunes cartoons, but what really breaks the camel's back as far as I am concerned is the author's determination to shove the theme of family and love down my throat.
You see, Julia's late husband is the son of the Earl of Daventry. Don't ask me - the author came up with this, not me. The Earl is portrayed at first as a monster. His negligence caused a young Randall to almost die, his refusal to believe the worst of his son saw both father and son treat Alex like a diseased leper that had infected them with STDs, and he also treated Julia beyond the pale. And yet, the author then has Alex and Julia happily sending her late husband's illegitimate son to the Earl! Apparently the Earl has a young wife that he cares for and this wife is pregnant, so that somehow turns the Earl into a good man overnight.
I don't buy it. Shouldn't Randall realize that, given the treatment of the Earl toward him just because Randall wasn't the heir or the spare, sending a bastard kid who therefore isn't the heir or the spare to the Earl - whose wife is expecting the heir - may just end up creating a repeat of his own tragic history with the Earl? The Earl neglected Randall to the point that Randall almost died, and he also looked away when his son beat and tortured young Randall. This same man blamed Julia for the death of his son and sent the man she described as the vilest man on earth to beat her and take her in. And these two are like, aww, a kid must know his grandfather so let's send him to that man? That man? Does Ms Putney expect me to buy this? I hate to say this, but she's even crazier than I am during a Hugh Jackman meet-and-greet if this is indeed the case.
Ultimately, the whole "my abusive guardian/father-in-law is A-OK because we are family" nonsense causes this book to morph from an artificial and sentimental read into a bewildering book that tries way too hard to shove a theme of family togetherness down my throat. The last few chapters leave such a bad taste in my mouth that only the serviceable chapters leading up to that point keep me from giving this book a really low final score. I don't like this story at all and it just makes the grade only because the writing is decent and the book is readable as a result.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
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