Bantam, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58755-2
Historical Romance, 2005
Reading Almost a Bride has me suspecting that perhaps Jane Feather is a very cynical person who doesn’t enjoy writing fluffy love stories that she has to put out in order to keep being an author. The heroine of this book, Arabella Lacey, is easily one of the best historical romance heroines I’ve come across – true to her time yet at the same time so realistically human in her feelings and emotions. She comes off as truly an adult woman of twenty-eight instead of some girl-child like too many historical romance heroines. But by the last page of the book, she is hoisted up on a pole and left twisted in the wind, a caricature of what she is at the first few chapters of the book, her passion and life beaten out of her so that she becomes another blindly loving and saintly heroine just like those girl-child heroines out there. It is as if Ms Feather wants me to share her own pain when she has to force her story to conform to her editor’s “suggestions”. Unfortunately, the way the author does this to me is too, too cruel.
Simply put, our hero Jack Fortescu, the Duke of St Jules, wants vengeance on Frederick Lacey, the Earl of Dunston, because of a tragedy during the bloody aftermaths of the French Revolution that involve Frederick’s treachery and the death of Jack’s sister Charlotte. After driving Frederick to wagering everything the Earl has, including his sister Arabella, Jack watches in cool detachment as Frederick commits suicide. Now, Jack will complete his vengeance by marrying the sister, thus eliminating the legacy of the Laceys from this world. He doesn’t count on Arabella being a vibrant and very intelligent woman who has no love lost for her half-brother and who is willing to marry Jack in order to keep her home.
Arabella also sees other benefits to this arrangement. How can I not love her when she says that she wants to start a political salon and make her mark on London? Or when Jack kisses her and remarks that she has hidden passions, she asks him why he should be surprised that she has these passions inside her. Or when she has her father’s good friend help her draw up a contract that protects her and her rights after she is married to Jack? This is one intelligent woman who makes decisions with her eyes wide open. When Jack doesn’t treat her well, she even unhesitatingly wages a psychological warfare on her own on him. She may be a woman from a different time, but she thinks, feels, and behaves like an intelligent woman with passions, insecurities, and fears that are realistic.
But there is no romantic element in her marriage with Jack. By the last page, there are too many unresolved issues that challenge the possibility of a happily-ever-after in this book. Jack has a mistress that… well, while he doesn’t sleep with her after he has married Arabella, he doesn’t hesitate to be seen talking to this woman or even be in her company while his wife is just across the ballroom. While Jack isn’t the only one playing this kinds of games with people that aren’t his wife, everyone knows that Jack has a mistress and who this mistress is. But Jack doesn’t care that he is humiliating Arabella in this manner. By the time I turn to last page of the book, Jack has made it clear to Arabella that while he doesn’t intend to sleep with his mistress, he will keep helping her pay her debts. He has made it clear that he will not take a stance where he will show others that his loyalty is first and foremost to his wife. There is a jaw-dropping scene where he tells Arabella that she has to endure the gossips and snide looks people send her way so that he doesn’t have to hurt his mistress’ feelings! If that’s not bad enough, it is clear that he will keep paying the gambling debts of his “best friends”, many of whom are gambling addicts and, come to think of it, who aren’t actually any better than Frederick Lacey.
But Arabella, ah. After she learns that her brother has wronged Jack’s sister, she stops thinking and starts making amends. While I am impressed by how she actually hands Jack his happy ending on a silver platter, I cringe when she starts begging him to forgive her for her brother’s actions. Excuse me? All her problems with Jack and his dubious fidelity and even loyalty evaporate, apparently because she loves him and her brother has wronged him. I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the gut and left slowly to bleed to death as I watch these two waltz off to the sunset.
Is there any reason why Ms Feather has to be this cruel to her readers? I mean, if she doesn’t want to write happy endings, then by all means go write some historical fiction where the heroine has to endure her faithless husband’s nonsense! In a romance novel, please at least grant me the illusion that the hero loves the heroine at the very least. Please let me feel that the heroine has found her happily ever after instead of her being trapped in an iron maiden of a marriage where she will slowly bleed to death. Arabella could have saved this joylessly pessimistic and cynical story, I suppose, but since she is pretty much a victim here, it is hard for me to feel cheered by that fact. All I know is that if Ms Feather is going to smear her love stories with such brutal cynicism that strips away illusions of romance clearly and expose how helpless the heroine is under the sway of the hero, please, maybe it’s time to write something else entirely? No matter how disillusioned the author may be with love or the industry, her readers do not deserve to be tormented this way.