Berkley Sensation, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19804-9
Historical Romance, 2004
The premise of Donna Birdsell’s debut effort The Painted Rose seems interesting. A tortured artist moving in to an English manor to teach a mysterious veiled woman art only to fall in love with her. How romantic that sounds, truly. Unfortunately, what I get instead is a one-dimensional and flat story filled with non-stop unnecessary melodrama, ridiculously evil villains, and “good” guys so filled with so, so, so much angst. This book is in trouble when the good guys’ sole characteristics consist mostly of guilt (hero) or self-depreciation (heroine) and nothing much else.
Lucien Delacourte, a French artist, comes to Elmstone Manor, located in the countryside near London, to escape his demons and hopefully get some money to start life anew. He lost his wife and daughter in a fire back in France. The wife accidentally started the fire but Lucien, who is away at the time, blames himself. I try to understand as he is grieving, but frankly, it becomes tedious when he keeps saying that he should have died, he couldn’t paint and enjoy what he does when his family are dead, it is his fault that they died (but for the life of me, I cannot understand how their deaths are his fault) – in short, he is one big drama queen.
The heroine, Sarah Essington, wears a veil and becomes a recluse after a carriage accident years ago. She wants to learn how to paint because she wants to produce a botanical catalogue for King George. You know, King George the Crazy? I’m told by the author and by Lucien that Sarah is bright and intelligent. What I get instead is another drama queen. The “Oh! My face! I’m not loveable!” whine fest is to be expected, I guess, but also adding to the fun are her “I gave my body away to a useless man so now I am ruined – oh, do I dare to love again, sob sob” drama along and other nonsense that, when revealed, frankly aren’t earth-shattering enough to warrant her overblown woe-is-me theatrics.
Even her brother is another ridiculous drama queen who blames himself for Sarah’s accident. Like Lucien, James seems to find too much delight in playing the martyr for the flimsiest of reasons. He also doesn’t treat his wife too well, although I’m supposed to overlook that because the wife is pure evil. Yup, the evil wife along with her evil cohorts plot mischief and mayhem because the evil wife is jealous of Sarah and wants Lucien for herself. Ms Birdsell plots like a thirteen-year old girl writing her first fanfiction.
So basically the story consists of the bad guys causing trouble and misunderstanding galore and the good guys react to these situations by kicking up the drama. When Sarah thinks that Lucien has abandoned her, for example, she pretty much wails that she has given her body to one man and her heart to Lucien so OH, SHE WILL NEVER LOVE AGAIN! I wait for her to wear a black veil to symbolize that she is dead – DEAD – inside or something but I guess even Ms Birdsell has her limits.
Still, there is a saving grace to this book. Ms Birdsell goes overboard with the self-pity and guilt-crippled theatrics of her main characters but she has a splendid, evocative way with scene-building. Sometimes she goes too far and the scenes, such as when Lucien first arrives in Whitford, come off as overly staged, complete with mysterious old women cackling vague omens or people who hit the table with their palms when they talk. But Ms Birdsell can also set up a scene very well if she puts her heart to it, so much so that I can visualize clearly a room or a scenic tableau that the author is describing. Also, the principal villains Julia and Duncan start out with some semblance of two-dimensional nature in that there is some insight provided into their motivations. It is only when the story progresses that Julia and Duncan mutate into one-dimensional Very Evil Monsters.
I grow tired of the main characters’ overblown and overplayed melodrama about a hundred pages into the story and the only reason to keep turning the pages is because Ms Birdsell’s descriptive abilities are elegant and even poetic at places. In fact, even now I find myself reluctant to outright pan this book because I really like reading it even if I am not enjoying the story at all. Am I making sense here? While I can’t find much in here to recommend The Painted Rose except as a story for unintentional giggles at the characters’ propensity for melodrama, I suspect that if the author can somehow come up with more realistic characters in a less one-dimensional plot, the pages of her books will be a pleasure to dive between.