Berkley Sensation, $5.99, ISBN 0-425-19326-8
Historical Romance, 2003
A ridiculous and most likely improbable premise coupled with too bland and too familiar characters makes Jacqueline Navin’s The Princess of Park Lane a book that is very easy to put down and forget. The author tries to create some emotional drama at the late quarter of the book and to an extent she succeeds, but by then it’s hard to care anymore.
The premise that connects this book with future books of this author is this: the late Earl of Woolrich was a profligate that had sired many children that he was concerned about only enough to detail their existence in a journal. His sister Lady May Hayworth discovers this journal after his death and decides to play fairy godmother to these bastards in question. Since the usual ambitious mothers are treated in the usual negative light by this author while Woolrich is cast in a loving light, the usual double standards apply and readers uneasy with this best put on asbestos gloves when handling this book.
Michaela Standish is our heroine in this book. She is a familiar one, and yes, she is really familiar. Self-effacing and ridiculously desperate to please everybody, she is of course holding out for love while bemoaning that she’s twenty-two and about to be placed on the shelf marked “Stale”. Her late father (actually, the man that married her mother) is the criminally negligent type whom she of course loves forever while her mother, who is concerned enough to push her daughters into marriages with eligible men to repair the family fortunes, is portrayed as ambitious and frankly just not worthy. At the same time, Michaela patronizingly contributes to some charity for poor people (you know, reading stories to kids and all that) while telling her mother that money isn’t everything. With her passel of servants and all, it is easy for her to talk about marrying for love. Let’s see if she changes her tune when she’s forced to scrub outhouses for a living. Oh, who am I kidding? She’d probably delight in making herself a martyr of the outhouse.
Because this book is operating in an universe where men cannot do wrong and women who love them will go everywhere, Lady May Hayworth decides to sponsor Michaela for a Season. Because it is normal for illegitimate children of late Earls to be paraded on the Marriage Mart without any hint of scandal. What follows are a few chapters of Michaela’s reluctant path To Miss Universe-dom as she is dressed and told how pretty she is. Then, for reasons best left unsaid, she decides to run off with Major Adrian Khoury (ex-soldier, whatever, you know the drill, I’m sure) into the garden where she learns that he thinks her a courtesan. An understandable mistake, as I’m sure the Ton often invites courtesans to their formal evening balls.
Adrian is said to be an intelligent and cunning politician-on-the-rise, although the author tells me this instead of showing me any of his political savvy. Indeed, there is too much telling in this book. Within minutes after she has left him in a ball of indignance, Michaela is telling herself that Adrian is kind and sensitive despite him having verbally insulted her just a few scenes back. How does she know this? Because the author says so, never mind that it makes Michaela come off like an inhuman creature incapable of realistic thoughts and emotions. Frankly, these two are utterly dull to read because Michaela behaves like a puppy while Adrian comes off as an arrogant jerk.
The fun starts very late in the story when these two found themselves married to each other and Adrian really shows his true and unpleasantly Draconian nature. I don’t know how it happened, but Michaela startlingly starts standing up for herself. She starts asking pertinent questions and making important decisions for herself. Where is this Michaela when I am trying to keep awake in the early parts of the book? I like this Michaela – when she learns the true extent of her husband’s skeletons in his closet, when he treats her like dirt, she doesn’t take any of his nonsense lying down. Unfortunately, I’m not too convinced of Adrian’s reformation by the last page – there is no convincing grovel. He says some things I find pretty objectionable during the final confrontation between he and his wife, but because he tells Michaela that he loves her, the blinders fall back over Michaela’s eyes and it’s happy ever after from then on. Still, while he says some wrong things, he says some decent things too, like how she has changed him for the better, so I guess he’s alright, somewhat. Readers that prefer their heroes not brought down to their knees entirely might like this one better than me.
But because the more interesting dramas and conflicts appear too late in the book, on the whole The Princess of Park Lane is a stale and forgettable exercise in reciting the laundry list of tired Regency-era historical clichés. I certainly won’t be surprised if there are readers out there that quit this story before the midway point due to the painfully derivative nature of the story. I almost did, although at the end I’m moderately pleased that I managed to stick with this book to the bitter end. The later parts of the book are almost worth the effort. Almost.