Souvenir Of Love
by Joanna Novins, historical (2004)
Berkley, $5.99, ISBN 0-425-19456-6

Joanna Novins' Souvenir Of Love sounds more enjoyable than it actually is. If the author has taken the trouble to explain why her characters are doing the things they do, instead of just making her characters go through the motions, this book would be so much better. Instead, this book feels like a well-polished American Idol performance where the singer is a well-trained performing monkey singing songs of heartbreak with a big beauty pageant smile on her face.

In Souvenir Of Love, I am supposed to accept at face value that Elizabeth Harcrest and James Dinsmore love each other, although he is slower than her to realize it. She has been in love with him since forever, it seems, and Ms Novins doesn't succeed in actually showing me why these two are in love. Elizabeth loves James and so one night, she encourages his attentions, not knowing that he's just playing along with his sister Anne's plan to avenge Anne's jilting by Elizabeth's brother by ruining Elizabeth's reputation. Elizabeth's reputation is ruined, needless to say, when she and James are "discovered" in a compromising position by Anne.

Elizabeth believes that James will marry her and all will be okay again, but alas, James doesn't. Rafe, her brother, scars James in the ensuing duel and Elizabeth is banished to the countryside in disgrace. I am also supposed to believe that James will become so melodramatically guilt-ridden (and tortured by memories of Elizabeth's delectable body and beauty) that he comes Yet Another Nobleman Spy dude to atone. Why not just say sorry to the lady and marry her? Well, if that happens, we won't have this story, will we? Elizabeth finally manipulates, finangles, coerces, and even blackmails people until she escapes from her exile. But by doing so, she ends up posong as James' bride as he tries to smuggle a French nobleman who just wants to see that Good (England, of course) triumphs over Evil (or in other words, the French).

The problem with this book is that the characters do things, but I don't know why they do these things. Elizabeth and James both feel uneasy over the ill-fated rendezvous that set in chains the events of this story, but they go ahead and do it anyway. Elizabeth does some other things that aren't wise in this story. She has doubts, which she dissects with some depths and details, but she goes ahead eventually and does them anyway. Likewise, James has his doubts too, but he rarely listens to his instincts. These characters spend way too much time hesitating before acting, going ahead anyway, and later regretting their actions and acting all nobly conflicted about their guilt and regrets.

So here I have a case of Ms Novins having a degree of self-awareness about how silly her characters can become but going ahead and letting her characters act silly anyway. I don't really understand this. Does she feel that she has to let her characters behave in a set pattern according to some bestseller formula? Some authors apparently have no idea how ridiculous their characters can be, but Ms Novins doesn't seem to be one of them. So what gives?

The writing is good and some effort has been put into making the external conflict more than mere wallpaper. Anne is also an interesting character in that she has much more depths than the average villainess. But with the main characters behaving like clockwork automatons that cannot deviate from a set course of action despite their doubts, Souvenir Of Love feels on the whole manufactured and stilted. Hopefully Ms Novins will not hold herself back in her next book.

Rating: 74

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