Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24151-6
Historical Romance, 2011
I don’t know why I keep torturing myself. Follow My Lead, like the last few books by this author, is only half a good book. Or, to be specific, this is another book where one character amuses me while the other greatly vexes me. In this case, if I can somehow swap the heroine Winnifred Crane with someone else, I may find this one far more to my liking.
Winn has recently lost her father that she spent most of her life caring for, so she is now for the first time in her life free to follow her dreams. The first thing Winn wants to do is to establish herself as an expert in art history, just like her father. Unfortunately, she published her papers under a pseudonym, CW Marks, which the Society of Historical Art and Architecture of the Known World believes to be a man. Her cousin in fact is more than happy to let the Society top dogs assume that he is CW Marks. Therefore, when Winn shows up holding a wet, smudged, and barely legible letter from her late father, the men at the Society don’t know what to make of her. Lord Jason Cummings, our hero, happens to be there when Winn makes her dramatic entrance, and being a formerly irresponsible fellow who is now trying so hard to be proper and such, he soon finds himself tagging along with her as she travels across Europe to prove her abilities by locating some evidence related to the authenticity of an old painting.
This is a road trip adventure, and a fun one, as Jason stumbles and bumbles his way into Winn’s heart while trying to figure out why he is following Winn all over the place. Oh yes, this is because Winn clearly needs his help. Jason’s adventures make for some amusing and even laugh-out loud funny reading. The author has created the perfect balance of naughty roguishness and unexpected chivalry in Jason. He’s not simply a one-dimensional bad boy or stiff-lipped proper gentleman; he has the best qualities of both archetypes in one adorable package. When he’s peevish, he’s just so cute. When he’s being romantic, he’s too adorable. Oh, and I should point out that he’s as good as engaged to another woman while he’s galloping around the place with Winn, but since he never expects to fall for Winn, it’s not like he’s being deliberately a two-timing jerk here.
Winn, on the other hand, is a very problematic character. Oh, I can relate to her wish to be independent and her desire to see the world for herself. I can understand her frustration at having to fight tooth and nail for the very freedom and privileges that Jason takes for granted just because she is a woman. But the problem here is that Ms Noble has designed Winn to be obviously incapable of enjoying the freedom that she craves. Her “adventures” in this book is one bumbling mishap after another, and it is due to Jason’s often timely intervention that our heroine is currently not trapped in some harem of a Middle-Eastern sultan. Therefore, it becomes hard to be patient with Winn when her desire to be independent becomes her sole conflict to keep Jason at arm’s length. It’s like following a color-blind woman’s stubborn attempts to become a traffic light coordinator – as the reader, I know right away that the right ending for Winn would be one where she is married to and babysat by Jason. There is no way this woman is going to be the female David Livingstone, not when she can barely speak the language of the natives in the countries she visits and certainly not when she can’t even arrange for a carriage without being taken for a ride by these natives.
Winn isn’t just an inept twit, though, she’s also that kind of heroine who refuses to acknowledge the hero’s aid. Instead, she will always insist that she could have handled things well on her own. Winn is therefore a double combo of a whammy – she’s an idiot who looks into the mirror and sees Lara Croft looking back at her. When the happy ending comes and she half-heartedly decides to go along with Jason’s declaration of love, I feel more relieved than anything else that this dingbat is finally steered away from her chosen path of self-destruction.
That’s why I wish that Winn is a different kind of heroine here, one who doesn’t demonstrate with every other action that she will never last ten minutes if she is allowed to achieve her dreams of independence and travel. Follow My Lead is actually a humorous and enjoyable read, but my pleasure decreases with every turn of the page as Winn begins acting like a shrew for something that she is clearly never going to be any good at. By deliberately turning the heroine into a shrill idiot who is wrong nearly all the time, Ms Noble has served up an anti-feminist tale where the heroine is portrayed as someone who shouldn’t be granted the freedom and rights she wants to have, for her own good, because she’s clearly too stupid to survive such freedom. There is something very distasteful about that, I feel.