Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-238900-8
Historical Romance, 2016
Oh boy, talk about a completely wasted opportunity. The hero of Forbidden, Rhine Fontaine, is half-black, but he passes for white. The son of a slave-owner and one of his slaves, he decides to use his ability to blend in, so to speak, with the white folks to carve a life for himself using the opportunities that would normally be denied to him. He ends up being a co-owner of a respectable saloon in Fort Collins – which means no working ladies around the place – and he even has a fiancée, a white woman from a respectable family. The hero being who and what he is should be a great source of pathos and conflicted emotions, especially when he falls for our heroine Eddy Carmichael, whom nobody would mistake for white.
Unfortunately, this story turns out to be a standard romance tale that is as deep as a puddle. After the end of the American Civil War, Eddy finds that life in Denver has just improved a little. She is still treated like a third-class citizen, so she decides to use her life savings to board a train to California. There, she hears that life is better for Colored people. Unfortunately, she is mugged just before she is about to embark on that train. She has no money, no ticket, and she has quit her job and given up her rented place. What is she to do now? Fortunately, strangers after strangers take her in and give her a ride and even a place to stay. Alas, her luck soon runs out and once again she falls into the clutches of a scumbag who insists that she put out or get out. She won’t put out, so he throws her out there in the middle of nowhere and takes off with her money.
Our hero Rhine finds her stumbling, weakened and all, and takes her in. He has his plans, all of which would be complicated by his attraction to her.
The biggest heartbreak about Forbidden is that it could have been so much more – an epic tale of a man who is torn between two worlds, both in which he never feels that he truly belongs, for example. Unfortunately, the author instead serves up a very generic and forgettable tale comprising shallow caricatures and broad swathes of plotting shortcuts.
Surprise, the fiancée is a shrill and prejudiced creature who doesn’t take rejection well! That makes it so easy to let Rhine break things off with her without looking like a complete tool, of course, but it also makes him look like an idiot to be so oblivious to her not-so-fine qualities in the first place. Also, he seems shocked to learn that she never intends for him to continue being a saloon-owner. What, he thinks that a genteel lady would want to be a wife to such a man? How silly. And for a brief second, I kind of feel sorry for Natalie because who on earth wants to be stuck with a guy whose greatest ambitions all hinge upon using her parents as social leverage?
Additionally, the good guys are predictable one-dimensional salt-of-the-earth types, while the bad guys are caricatures who actually cackle and screech. Rhine and Eddy are standard goody-goody types at their core, although Rhine comes off as an indecisive twit at times often for the sake for furthering the drama between him and Eddy. In other words, these are all recognizable elements in a romance novel from the author. Forbidden is very much like her last few books, so I guess the author is not rocking the boat anytime soon.
But come on, what a waste! Why create a hero like that only to have him play the standard romance hero role? Why stick him in a plot full of thinly-drawn stereotypes and nasty, nasty villains? The author ends up playing it very safe at the end of the day, and I can’t help feeling very cheated as a result.
Worse, playing it safe works seriously against the very fundamental premise of the story. The author usually allows her characters to find convenient sweeping solutions to all their problems. In the context of this particular book, her playing it safe ends up causing things to make little sense. The hero and the heroine can find a happily ever after in a town full of folks who realize that he has been pretending to be white all this while… what? All the good guys rally to their side, even throwing a party for them… cool, but really? And then the heroine gets her cake and eat it too – heck, the author even throws in the entire bakery for Eddy, by having her bus her nieces – Colored girls whose mother is a prostitute – to that very town. The story gives an over the top happy ending to everyone, to the point that all the good guys practically group hug by the last page – how nice for them, but all these developments only trivialize the hero’s initial conflicts and indecision. The whole thing ends up being a waste of my time.