Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6324-2
Historical Romance, 2005
After following Connie Brockway’s interview at All About Romance where she talked about wanting to explore contemporary romances and the frustrating limitations imposed on the historical romance genre, and after reading My Surrender, I wonder whether I’m reading too much between the lines if I speculate on just how much of this book is reworked on the “recommendation” from the editor. Simply put, this book is a mess. I don’t know whether I’m reading a dumbed-down and cartoon version of Punky Brewster turned Mata Hari adventures or just a result of a clumsy editorial hijack. I wonder about the latter because her previous books have never being this… messy before.
The premise seems promising. Charlotte Nash, the youngest sister of the three women who star in the author’s The Rose Hunters trilogy (read the review of the first book My Seduction for the backstory if you are not familiar with it), stumbles upon the fact that the mission to restore France to the hands of the monarchy (and therefore allowing the Church to boss everyone around once more) that cost her late father his life is still very much ongoing. She volunteers to be a contact person between the English spies in both countries, and from thereon, manages to become one of the key players in two small intelligence networks in England. One of the people she comes in constant contact with is Andrew “Dand” Ross, also coincidentally the last unhitched Rose Hunter. When a Very Important Letter falls into the hands of the Comte St Lyon, it is up to Lottie to step in as the Mata Hari of the story, to become the mistress to Comte St Lyon, when the actual mistress in question suffers from a broken leg in an accident. Lottie asks Dand to help her ruin her reputation so that she has a credible excuse to turn from, as the book puts it, a Diamond of First Water to the Pariah of Highest Order. Personally, I have my doubts that even a man like Comte St Lyon will be so picky when it comes to a hot woman throwing herself at him, but I guess we need to have an excuse to have Dand schooling Lottie in sexual stuff somehow or there won’t be a book.
Lottie starts out as an intelligent woman but it becomes very apparent early on that she has no true idea what she is getting into when she decides to become St Lyon’s mistress and she is not going to succeed in the masquerade because she is too emotional. Maybe some readers will appreciate the fact that Lottie is sacrificing her reputation – which, as we know, is a woman’s most precious thing ever, snort – but if you’re like me, you will probably think that it is not touching as much as it is idiotic for a woman to get so bent on doing something that she is obviously not cut out for, even if it’s for the good for country. Isn’t there any other people that can play the Mata Hari here? A martyr who is out of her depths isn’t to be glorified, just like how people won’t care for Joan of Arc if she can’t even ride a horse, much less lop off the heads of her enemies.
Dand and Lottie have great chemistry and some of their scenes truly sizzle with romanticism as well as sexual tension. I really love that scene where they are playing chess and Dand muses aloud whether he should use the knight to protect his queen or to sacrifice the queen to protect the king. Yes, the underlying anvils to that scene is heavy-handed, but the way the scene unravels is very nicely-done indeed. Lottie isn’t the only one touched by that scene. Likewise, I do like how Dand will drop everything and rush out in the rain to find Lottie just because she summons him. True, a golden spaniel can do that just as well, but Dand comes off as a larger-than-life romantic hero whose actions often resonate with gallantry. Both Lottie and Dand are likable characters. It is the plot that does them no favors by having them do things that make them come off as nitwits.
Oh, the plot. This is the weakest part of this book and the biggest reason why I feel that this book is a mess. Readers hoping to see Lottie playing the mistress smartly and well will be disappointed because for a long time, Lottie is being “ruined” by Dand and during those times, the gravity of Lottie’s mission fades into the background, as if it is a matter of no consequence compared to Lottie getting the jollies of a lifetime from Dand. In the late quarter of the book when Lottie graduates from Dand’s school, so to speak, Dand is always there to watch out for her. Therefore, Lottie is never really in trouble. She never has to truly do anything here other than to fall in love with Dand and whine that she can’t go through the act of sleeping with St Lyon, sob sob sob.
When the plot comes to the foreground, the results are some plot holes that aren’t explained adequately as well as the villain (whose identity I guess correctly since the first book) explaining a plot so convoluted that I’m surprised he doesn’t come prepared with handbooks, charts, and a Powerpoint slide show to hand out to Dand during the predictable “I’ll tell you all” denouement scene. Convoluted is one thing, but what I truly don’t understand is why the villain doesn’t just shoot everyone in the back one by one instead of going through the trouble of orchestrating some elaborate schemes that span the whole trilogy. Maybe the villain is a metaphor for the romance novel formula forcing authors to jump through hoops, plot-wise, to come up with plots that must still conform, often ridiculously, to the formula?
And don’t get me started about some of the laughably dumbed-down aspects of the plot. Andrew Ross is an infamous spy. His nickname? The Rosse. I know there are many Rosses in England, maybe, but it is kind of him to give his enemies a clue as to where they should start looking should they want to discover his name. When he is playing Lottie’s French lover, Dand tells everyone that his name is Andre Rosse. That’s like me wearing a name tag with “Mrs Chuckles” the next time I go rob a bookstore, don’t you think?
There could be many things the author could have explored in this book. The anguish of a brotherhood torn asunder is not touched on, which is shocking considering how the story turns out towards the end, while the moral dilemma of a woman wanting to ruin herself for the sake of her country is just skimmed lightly before being shoved aside for more typical “school me in seduction, my rakish hero” matters. At the end of the day, the characters of this book would be fun to root for in a different story, but the execution of the plot feels rushed, the overall storyline feels too unnecessarily elaborate not to come off as contrived and even ridiculous, and the book ends in a way that gives me this impression that the author is so relieved that she has finally finished this bugger that she’s going to Fed-ex the book to the editor without a second glance (that bugger is the editor’s problem now) and get royally drunk subsequently to celebrate the end of a tedious chore.
All I can say is that I’m glad that Ms Brockway is exploring other settings for her next book because her heart isn’t fully into this book if the shoddy plot execution and the rushed ending are anything to go by. With this book coupled to the author’s recent public announcement that she’s heading off to try her hands at contemporary romances, I can only wonder whether there is any deeper meaning to the title of the book. I’ll just put this book behind me and look forward to the author’s future offerings.