Zebra, $6.50, ISBN 0-8217-6867-0
Historical Romance, 2002
This is the start of a new series featuring the four men of the Compass Club. Why the Compass Club? Well, for one, there’s the Earl of Northam (“North”), the Marquess of Eastlyn, the Viscount Southerton, and, er, Mr Marchman, the last everyone calls “West” out of pity, no doubt. Let Me Be the One is the story of Brendan David Hampton, the Earl of Northam.
One day, he and his three friends gambol around the flower gardens, lie down on the carpet over the lovely green grass, and talks about life. I scratch my head. I don’t think even Oscar Wilde is this… girly. And these guys are old boarding school friends too. How’s the chocolate pudding, guys?
Our heroine is Elizabeth Penrose. She’s a 26-year old spinster, and yes, if you’re a cynical hag who are now rolling up your eyes as you recite, “Oh boy, considers herself unpretty, unmarriageable, et cetera, argh!” Jo Goodman won’t make converting you into the church of optimism anytime soon. Northam courts Elizabeth, Elizabeth lets him have sex with her but demurs in everything else, and I am really bewildered.
Bewildered, because frankly I have never seen such nonexistent characterization and chemistry-free relationship in a romance novel in quite a while. These two people talk, but at the same time, they talk about nothing in a most long-winded manner. At the same time, even as she “understands” what a good man he is, after talking to him, mind you, she and he have a rather bizarre sex scene that arrive out of the blue. There’s marriage (I wish you won’t ask, but to cut the story short, he gets accused as a jewel thief and she decides to protect him by telling everyone that he’s with her all night, blah blah blah). This leads to revelation of secrets that culminate in our selfless, noble, pure, and flat heroine making a grand crucification of herself in the name of martyrdom.
Northam is flat. He’s a spy (yawn), but he’s flat in the pleasant, understanding, cheerful way. On the other hand, Elizabeth is flat in a more lifeless way – she’s humorless and has this annoying tendency to punish herself most severely and unnecessarily for the slightest mistakes. A visit to some shrinks will have done her a world of good.
In the end, this story is flat. Okay, maybe “flat” is not the correct adjective, as there is some character development here. But in this case, character development results in our main characters becoming more and more martyred, and frankly, apart from their fetish for self-blame, their luster of flawless perfection gets tedious. He’s supposed to be this noble superspy while she’s supposed to be this noble, selfless, resigned, and thoughtful heroine who nonetheless willingly suffers for her one sexual mistake in her past. Two dull lackluster cardboard figures whose depths come solely from all those angst that are born from their ridiculously high self-expectations. Ms Goodman is trying to create drama, but at the same time she paints her conflicts with such broad black-and-white strokes that there seems to be no middle-ground in this story. Either you are the new Saint of Historical Romance or you take the baseball bat and brain yourself because you aren’t. In the end, I just have to sigh, rub the bridge of my nose, and ask aloud whether all this nonsense is really necessary.
It also doesn’t help that every secondary character here are either promotional action figures for upcoming books (the other three compass directions) or cheerleaders. How many times can these people tell Northam what a pure, kind, lovely, and wonderful woman Elizabeth is before I vomit so hard that I spew out my entire brain?
Factor in a rambling prose style that stretches to 432 pages and Let Me Be the One is a true challenge of my patience. Oh sure, perhaps fans of – hmm, maybe all those old-school historicals or traditional Regencies where the romance novel heroines hold themselves to impossibly high standards (selfless, pure, noble, polite, diplomatic, kind, maternal, plain-faced, et cetera) will love this one to bits.
As for me, well, Ms Goodman, this one just isn’t the one, I’m afraid.