Zebra, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-4810-7
Historical Romance, 2019
Simon Duval, a former officer with the British Intelligence, is feeling a little bereft of a purpose now that Napoleon Bonaparte is living it up in Elba and peace, it seems, is returning to Europe. He has devoted much of his life to that war, and now, he finds himself thinking about his lost love and everything else he had lost in those years. Simon visits Suzanne, his late cousin’s wife, only to learn that the former Comtesse de Chambron is now a seamstress. Because the author apparently doesn’t want to make life hard for her characters anymore, Suzanne is actually living well, with protective friends that watch out for her, so it’s not like our heroine is forced to sell her body for for twenty pence at the docks. Our heroine spent time as a captive in a harem in the past, though, and hence, she was never accepted among polite society and she’s ripe for some unconvincing sexual healing.
Anyway, Simon wants to marry her because they are both sensible people and hey, why not, she agrees so long as there are no sexy times involved. I didn’t roll up my eyes when Suzanne says that she can easily see herself being celibate for the rest of her life, because who knows what she had endured during her time as a harem captive, but I do roll up my eyes when she’s like, oh, Simon is so virile and lusty, it won’t be fair to force him into a sex-free marriage. Still, they decide that so long as they are discreet, there’s no reason why Simon can’t stick it to other women now and then.
Anyway, since as I’ve mentioned genuine angst and interpersonal conflict are no longer hot in this author’s books, we soon learn that Napoleon has gone sight-seeing outside of Elba, and Simon will rush back to do this thing. Naturally, he takes the inexperienced civilian wife along, and our Suzanne soon turns out to be a uber-capable wunderkind just like the author’s last few heroines. Lots of twists and turns will follow, to culminate in a sappy happy ending where feels trumps everything else.
Mary Jo Putney’s Once a Spy is an interesting case study of how elements that used to work for me in her previous books no longer work as well here. Perhaps it’s because I have outgrown the author’s style? Or, maybe it’s because the absence of a compelling story arc ends up accentuating the flaws of the story?
At any rate, back to this one, I know I will have problems when I begin rolling up my eyes the moment the two characters begin talking about they meet again.
“You and I met a dozen years ago during the Peace of Amiens, The naive and optimistic girl that I was then thought the wars were over and we could look forward to bright futures. The world dissolved once more into violence and chaos. Perhaps your proposal stems from a desire to recapture those days of peace and optimism? But they are gone forever.”
“The time had passed but weren’t we friends even though we didn’t know each other for long? I admire your intelligence and warmth and envied my cousin his choice of bride. You seemed to enjoy my company as well. Isn’t that worth building on?”
“That is a frail, distant connection. We are strangers to each other now.”
To me, this isn’t a conversation. This is an exposition not disguised very well as conversation. Two people who barely know one another normally shouldn’t have much reason to begin baring their souls and analyzing the other person when the tea is still warm in their cups. The rest of the story is like this too. Characters don’t talk, they dump information using bombastic sentences, so much so that there is nothing for me, as the reader, to discover on my own. Everything I need to know is blabbed out by characters the moment they open their mouths. The above exchange is just a short snippet of a longer conversation in which Simon lays out that he is wounded inside, scarred by the losses he sustained in the war, but is confident that his old self is still inside… somewhere. Our heroine announces that her time in the harem has changed her, taught her to be resilient and pragmatic, et cetera.
This exchange takes place in the second chapter. The rest of the story, therefore, hinges on these characters doing things to keep things going. Sure, they talk – a lot – but I already know all there is to know about these characters. Everything else is just extra, or, more often than not, just accentuation of what noble, capable, awesome people Simon and Suzanne are. I’m bored.
As for the busier second half or so of the story, I get this impression that things are merely happening, without the plot heading towards any clear direction. There is no obvious villain to take down, no blue print of a plot – just things happening and our characters going through problems like a hot knife through butter. Instead of things happening organically due to ingenuity or strategy, more often than not the twists and turns come to be due to coincidences or good luck. Fairly or not, I end up thinking that the author was just making things up as she went along during the writing of this book.
Consequently, Once a Spy ends up being an unfocused story with a messy plot – or whatever passes for one – and characters that are actually puddle deep despite all their constant talk about their feelings. Simon and Suzanne by the final page resemble the Simon and Suzanne in chapter two, as their characters already evolved and revealed way too early in the story. All in all, it seemed as if the author had deliberately gone out of her way to make this story as boring as can be.