Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-20955-9
Historical Romance, 2003
Taming the Heiress, Susan King’s latest Victorian-era historical romance, is a mess of puzzling motivations, bewildering plot twists, and unnecessary deceptions. Even if it is well-written, I still can’t get over the huge plot and logic black holes in the story to appreciate it. Add in an irritating old woman trying to be matchmaker when she comes off as more virulent than Norman Bates’s mother, and this one is pure cringe.
In 1850, the insane grandmother Elga intoxicates Meg McNeill and tosses her into the caves down the Caransay so that Meg can get pregnant by sleeping with a kelpie and bring good luck to everybody. Meanwhile, Dougal Stewart, a shipwrecked sailor, finds his way to shore. The idiot Meg doesn’t even try to discover whether he’s a selkie or not – let’s make seal babies, yeah baby! Needless to say, when they’re both done, his fellow sailors come to take him home and she learns that, duh, he’s human. Damn. A young girl can’t even indulge in bestiality in those days in peace.
Today, Meg inherits so much money that she’s even richer than dour old Victoria herself. Yet at the same time, I’m supposed to accept that while everybody knows of rich Meg McNeill, nobody knows what she looks like, young or old. She and Dougal are feuding on sight unseen because he wants to build a lighthouse on Caransay and she’s all about protecting the birdies and preserving the very tradition that she says have ruined her. (I guess when it comes to logical motivations, romance heroines are exempted – as long as they can bend over and take it all in in the name of duty and whatnot, they are happy.) She has a child from that night when she was deflowered by what she thought was a seal, and this child is raised by one of the many relatives of hers on Caransay.
Dougal and she meet when they are on Caransay, but he isn’t aware that she is the same Lady Strathlin that owns the island. She is not happy that he has used legal means to steamroller his way onto building his phallic lighthouse on the island (the imagery is staggeringly subtle) so she will never let him know that she is the lady in question. Then she recognizes him as the bastard who impregnated her, and now she will never tell him ever because he will then steal her son and poor Lady Strathlin, with more money than the Queen, can surely never be able to bribe, threaten, and steal her way back to winning custody of her son. She can’t find any way to fight back against Dougal’s legal injunction either. And oh, she certainly can’t take time to actually study the lighthouse and determine the actual repercussions building one will do to her precious birds (did she sleep with them too, I wonder).
Dougal recognizes her as the woman he deflowers that night, and fuelled by obligation as well as attraction, he approaches her with genuine intention to make amends and know her better. But Meg just keeps lying and lying and initiating so many unnecessarily convoluted deceptive merry-go-rounds that I really get fed up trying to figure this woman out. Meanwhile, the stupid old bitch Elga, who in the prologue warns Meg about the seal coming back to drag Meg down the ocean, does a complete reversal and is now telling Meg again and again that she’s lucky because her seal husband is coming to drag her down into the ocean. This hateful old woman that whores her loved ones out may be senile, but she’s also why some people throw their unpleasant and unwanted old people into homes and pay the attendants extra to slip laxatives into the porridge.
Along the way, the story muddles along in some familiar “the heroine desperately needs the hero’s help even as she thinks he’s the bastard from hell” premise. I personally find it hard to imagine that Meg, being one of the richest women in Europe, will be so helpless to fight against the oppressors in her life. In the opening scene in Chapter One, she has proven that she can persuade the bank officers holding her money to release her money for her precious Home For Single Mothers after all (matchmaking efforts with seals may or may not be included), so how hard can it be to hire some lawyers and bribe her way to getting a court order ruling in her favor? Even in the late 19th century, I doubt that money can’t crush chauvinism. I am also exasperated by Meg’s assumption that Dougal is the biggest bastard of the land when Dougal has been nothing but gallant and patient with her. It doesn’t help matters that her entire arsenal of reasons to oppose the lighthouse project are strictly visceral in nature (“the beautiful birdies!”) and she doesn’t even try to approach the matter with scientific enquiry. She doesn’t know and she doesn’t care to learn more about this project – all she cares about is preserving memories and traditions, including a tradition she claims to have ruined her life. In the end, Dougal seems like the wronged party here, and it doesn’t feel right that he has to be the one working to save the day.
Meg’s often illogical behaviors and motivations brand her as a classic example of an idiot heroine that caused the book to be 200 pages longer than it should have been. And of course, she’s all wrong in the end, making these 200 pages a complete waste. Susan King can write most nicely when it comes to describing the scenery, but without any shred of logic in Taming the Heiress, she’s just wasting my time here.