HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77439-5
Historical Romance, 2010
Courtney Milan’s full-length debut effort with HQN, Proof by Seduction, is quite similar to her short story in The Heart of Christmas in that, once again, we have a heroine behaving more like a shrink, psychoanalyzing and helping the stuffy hero heal and understand that he can love.
Oh, and don’t be fooled by the cover, which shows a rather anorexic-looking woman about to do something that can make her go blind, into thinking that this is an erotic historical romance. A typical story by Stephanie Laurens is more steamy than this one. Not that there is anything wrong with not being an erotic romance, of course. I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea only to end up writing angry letters to the author demanding to know where the raunchy stuff is.
Gareth Carhart, the Marquess of Blakely, is a man who hasn’t been happy in a long time. But he hides his woobie soul under an exterior composed of a haughty sense of superiority over everyone, including his own family members, and a determination to spurn anything that he can’t figure out using logic or mathematics. When his cousin Ned becomes very dependent on the advice of a fortune teller, Madame Esmerelda, Gareth decides to unmask that charlatan. Madame Esmerelda or Jenny Keeble, our heroine, is not going down without a fight, however.
This one is a very articulate full-length debut, and reading it, I can only wonder whether Courtney Milan is actually an old hand at romance novels writing under a new pseudonym. The first two or three chapters are a bit slow, but once the author has found her rhythm, the story takes off and, well, let’s just say that Milan Airlines knows how to provide a most enjoyable flight. Ms Milan is attuned to her characters’ strengths and weaknesses, and she knows how to use these to her advantage, creating vividly memorable characters that are larger than life and yet recognizably human at the same time.
But the author’s acute awareness of her characters’ flaws and strengths can backfire as well. There are moments when Jenny could have easily sat on a psychiatrist’s seat while Gareth scowls from his place on the couch. Or that Jenny could be like Oprah, holding Gareth’s hands as the audience gives a heartwarming sound while she asks Gareth, “But Gareth, how do you really feel… inside?” The problem with Jenny being so good in analyzing Gareth is that I soon want to know how Jenny can be so good at reading people. Of course, she wouldn’t be a good fortune teller if she couldn’t read the room well, but in this story, Jenny also comes off as if she has a first class degree in psychology. She’s a little too good at reading Gareth to be believable.
Still, there is no denying the chemistry between Gareth and Jenny. Gareth’s breakdown and epiphany is beautiful to behold, and when he falls for Jenny, he falls really hard. Jenny’s love for Gareth is a little harder to believe. I mean, while I can imagine that Gareth loves Jenny because she has been both a mother and lover to him in many ways, I am not sure what Gareth brings to the table when it comes to Jenny’s attraction to him. He’s hot and he’s rich, but of course, our heroine is above such shallow considerations when it comes to picking a beau, so… what is it that attracts Jenny to him? I can only imagine that she’s attracted to the fact that Gareth is a woobie who is pretty much standing on the stage and singing mournfully Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is.
But the story falls apart considerably in the last few chapters. Here, it seems as if the author has suddenly lost control of her story. Where she previously demonstrated that she is carefully attuned to her characters, in these chapters she seems to morph into a completely different author. There are plenty of conflicting messages being sent out in these chapters. Jenny decides to play the noble martyr, not wanting to be a mistress and not wanting help because she’s Miss Independent like that. This would have been a fine thing if the author hadn’t at the same time had Jenny pulling a stupid stunt and finding herself desperately in need of money as a result. Predictably, the hero eventually swoops in and cleans up her mess for her.
So what exactly is Ms Milan trying to tell me here? On one hand, we have Jenny’s insistence of wanting to be viewed by Gareth as an equal as well as her desire to remain independent and free from being controlled by a man. On the other hand, Jenny’s wishes never mattered because in the end, she can’t extricate herself from her mess without the hero coming in and doing it for her. Gareth admires Jenny’s supposed independent spirit. But this story makes it clear that Jenny’s supposed independent spirit hadn’t done her any favors – Gareth’s rank and money save the day, while Jenny’s principles are completely invalidated at the end of the day – her principles are all talk and nothing else. I’m so confused, I tell you. All these contrivances pulled by the author just so that Jenny can play the noble martyr and Gareth can rescue her from her stupidity, even if such contrivances are out of character especially for someone with Jenny’s background – all this nonsense weakens the story significantly in my opinion.
To conclude, Proof by Seduction is a well-written and very polished above average effort that I have a fine time reading, but it also has some glaring flaws that prevent me from truly loving it.