Jove, $5.99, ISBN 0-515-12369-2
Historical Romance, 1998
Adele Ashworth has a pretty noteworthy debut historical romance novel in My Darling Caroline. It also has some pretty obvious debut author flaws that can really distract me from the story, but hey, if all debut authors start out of the gate writing amazing stories without much flaws, there everybody will be a writer and nobody has any time to be an annoying nitpicker of these books.
What makes this book work very well is a realistic nerdy heroine and a rather schizophrenic hero who nonetheless manages to fill the role of the Broody Surly Wounded but Secretly Romantic hero archetype pretty nicely. We have Caroline Grayson, the heroine, who is a whiz when it comes to mathematics and botany in a way that Gregor Mendel would proud of but unfortunately, she’s born a woman and in those times women don’t get respected for their brainpower. Caroline wants very badly to head off to America and study in the Columbia University, because there they at least allow women to stand outside the classrooms to study with the rest of the male students.
Unfortunately, her father is set on marrying her off. The lucky fellow is Brent Ravenscroft, the Earl of Weymerth, who is only agreeing to the marriage to regain his holdings that have been sold out from under his feet as he was fighting that fat short French fellow in Waterloo. Caroline agrees because she figures that she can easily get Brent to annul the marriage once he has what he wanted from it and she can happily sail off to America. However, love always have a way of complicating things.
Caroline’s dilemma and frustrations are very well portrayed and I can sympathize with her. She is surprised and then delighted when Brent starts accepting and appreciating her for her intelligence and here I believe Ms Ashworth does a good job in making sure that Caroline’s feelings come off as love rather than the thrill of and gratitude to someone appreciating Caroline for the first time being passed off as love. Her relationship and chemistry with Brent are nicely done. Brent is a more problematic character because there are some contradiction in the details about him and the way he behaves, such as how he was once a super-duper capable spy when at the time of the story he is incapable of being anything but blunt. Nonetheless, Ms Ashworth does a good job in showing me how Brent slowly thaws as he discovers more and more to admire and even love about his wife. There are times when Brent seems too good to be true, what with him even defending Caroline from those ignorant males that don’t understand or appreciate her.
And yes, he is too good to be true, because at the late quarter or so of the story, Ms Ashworth seems to realize that her characters are so happy that, realistically, she would have to put “The End” at the end of her story a hundred pages or so under the required word count. Lo and behold, she starts piling up conflicts after conflicts to the point that the characters often act as if they as possessed by the ghosts of different people to accommodate these conflicts. It’s not that these conflicts are contrived – some are, but some also feel like natural progression of the issues standing between the two characters – it’s how Ms Ashworth introduces them as if they are helicopters crashing down onto the earth from the sky and everyone has to run for the hills or get crushed as a result.
This is especially true of the way Brent lashes out at Caroline towards the end for what he perceives as a betrayal of their love on her part. I find myself thinking that it’s strange how he doesn’t anticipate it since it’s not as if their marriage started out blissful – it’s not even voluntary on both their parts – and therefore Brent comes off as overreacting way too much when he starts calling Caroline all kinds of names. This takes place so close to the end that I no longer find the happy ending so convicing anymore. I’d prefer at this point to have an epilogue in this story where Brent sees a shrink.
While not technically polished and the late quarter or so of the book could have been much better, Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline nonetheless shows me that the author has the potential to go far when it comes to characterization. The characters for the most part have enough depths that enable them to move beyond being mere stereotypes and stand out in my mind. It will be interesting to see whether Ms Ashworth can one day deliver what this book hints that she is capable of.