Sourcebooks Casablanca, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-8776-3
Historical Romance, 2014
If you prefer your historical romance romps to have some semblance of authenticity, if not accuracy, brace yourself because, as usual, Jayne Fresina exists to make Amanda Quick seem like an esteemed professor specializing in the history of 19th century England.
Justina Penny, the daughter of the doctor of a small village called Hawcombe Prior, is the poster girl for girls gone wild. Last year, when her family decided to give her and her older sister a debut in Bath, she sneaks into the room of the man that caught her eye, completely naked and willing to experience what it means to be a woman, only to discover that the man had switched rooms with our hero Darius Wainwright. Darius sent her on her way, convinced that she was one of the more desperate misses hoping to catch a husband by any means at her disposal. The next evening, he saw her again, right before she ruined his coat and almost burned down the building they were all in.
Today, she is still doing things her way – breaking into places to steal a pig, jumping over and crashing into mud pools, and generally gets into all kinds of mischief. Darius, meanwhile, has become even more prim and proper over the years, wishing nothing to do with the misses of society even as she wants nothing to do with the men in society. He inherits a property from a late uncle, and he arrives in Hawcombe Prior to examine and sell off the property. Stumbling into Justina again makes him go crazy, because he finds himself, against his better judgment, to stay longer and sample the local life. This is even after he recognizes her as the crazy girl in Bath last year, so it really must be love.
Once Upon a Kiss is pretty much what is advertised in the back cover synopsis: it’s a romantic comedy revolving around our heroine doing her best to have the time of her life – often by breaking the rules without much thought – and our hero chasing after her with a befuddled kind of lust fogging up his mind. However, the story also demonstrates that, sometimes, chemistry can carry a story when there is… well, there isn’t much of a story in the first place, just “Wacky! Wacky! Funny!” non-stop.
Perhaps it helps that the author is very aware of how immature and self-absorbed her 19-year old heroine is, but I have to confess that I find Justina a fabulous kind of train wreck. Sure, I’d probably push a pillow over her face and sit on it until she stops moving if I ever have to babysit her for more than three seconds, but in this story, I can’t help but to adore her. She’s crazy, a bit of a happy slattern in that she’s determined to have sex without having to marry the guy she has her eye on, and completely reckless, but she’s also willing to back up her talk. When she’s backed against the wall or her plot flops (as usual), she doesn’t go down without a fight. She also doesn’t let anyone cow her, and she doesn’t let others mess with her thoughts or feelings. Normally, train wrecks like Justina would get on my nerves, but here, I can’t fight it – I think she’s a hoot. Besides, she doesn’t think much of a certain Mr Darcy, so she’s definitely one of the good gals.
Darius is her complete opposite, and I really like how the author has him doing his Mr Serious thing without resorting to the played-out “prim and proper guys are rude and surly because they are hot that way” shtick that every other “nerd” or “proper” hero is slapped in the face with. Once he warms up to his new crazy life, he becomes a pretty cute hero, absolutely charming in his befuddled funk. He and Justina get along like firecrackers on the Fourth of July, and they are so funny together. I’m not sure how these two manage to convince themselves that they are in love, but they have pretty good sexual tension and an even more entertaining banter system between them.
The plot is mostly wacky piled on more wacky, and there are some plot developments that are contrivances to throw those two together without any regard to conventions and social norms of that time. Also, the author should consider sharpening her sense of timing. Often, when she delivers a punchline, the effect can be devastating and really funny. But she’d then ruin the effect by belaboring on that punchline, extending it or just repeating it again a few more times until the joke is completely played out. Justina’s Bath adventures, for example, are repeated three times within a few chapters. No matter how funny a certain punchline is, the author should learn how to just drop it and then let go. Things are much more funny that way.
I normally think at least three times before giving books like Once Upon a Kiss a favorable final score because I normally don’t like stories that are all about the wacky with little else on the side. This one, however, is just so entertaining and funny, and it’s a blast following the main couple through their wacky adventures. Oh, what the heck, have an extra oogie on me. I’m easy when the author knows which buttons to push.