One Moonlight Night

A Perfect Bride

A Perfect Hero

The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell
by Samantha James
(Avon, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-06-089645-4
This is the People magazine of romance novels. One is embarrassed to have picked it up, chagrined to have devoured it cover-to-cover, and mortified to know that one is so susceptible to emotional manipulation. It is the literary manifestation of that bag of potato chips of which “Nobody can eat just one.” Tasty in the moment, but a guilty pleasure that leaves greasy fingers and shame in its wake.

Simon Blackwell is the most tortured of heroes. Once happily married, he has suffered a great loss (the telling of which is dragged out for just over half of the novel’s pages, so no spoiler here). He has lived in solitary, even reclusive fashion on his Yorkshire estate (ooh, moors to wander) for the past five years. Drawn to London only to help an elderly aunt celebrate her birthday, he crosses paths with Miss Annabel McBride, who is down from her ancestral Scottish home with her widowed mother, brothers and cousin Caro and her family. The two have an unappealing couple of first meetings; Simon is unpleasant, judgmental and brooding, while Anne is feisty, sharp-tongued and annoyed. Both find themselves uncomfortably aware of the other. So aware that they are drawn together on the terrace during his aunt’s birthday ball – which has been moved to Anne’s mother’s home – then locked in a passionate embrace.

Unfortunately, they are discovered thusly by Annabel’s brother Alec, the Duke of Gleneden, who is not inclined to let it pass. Mere hours later, Anne and Simon are set to marry, and days later they have been wed and are on their way to his Yorkshire estate. Moors, here we come. Married life, here we come. Except, much to Anne’s dismay, Simon does not intend that they will have a real marriage. One year living as brother and sister, he tells her, and then they can be divorced. Anne is not real keen on this plan, and sets about to change it.

That’s pretty much it. There are no significant secondary characters, no real plot, not much story line, and very little action. In fact, it is practically measurable by the page count: 25% don’t know why we’re hot for each other, 25% married but living in strain because there is a big hairy secret, 25% want each other but won’t give in, 25% whoops, gave in but didn’t want to, hurry up and race toward closure for no discernable reason except that we’re running out of pages… Formula? Ya think? How about: he’s brooding and tortured, she’s young and feisty. How about: put her in danger that approximates a past tragedy and see how he handles it. How about: I won’t know how much I love you unless you leave (or threaten to), and all I need to do to make it all up to you is tell you how much I love you.

Even with all the formula, some crucial matters were glossed over, introduced as obvious plot devices and then forgotten, or strangely immaterial. The list of such items could be endless, but of particular note: would a simple kiss on a terrace lead to such a dire outcome? What’s the point of being a duke if you can’t quell this type of nonsense?

Why is this set in the Victorian era, when without the dates and the dress style, it could be Regency 101? And the details of the tragedy, when revealed, leave huge questions as to the architecture, cause-and-effect, and common sense. Or the poor stock figure that was introduced, played up, and then discarded, just to add an edge to the terrace scene – poor dear. Additionally, one would never know that Annabel was Scottish if they didn’t keep mentioning it, and allowing her, once or twice, to slip into Och Lassie linguistics. What was the point of this heritage? Was Annabel a character in a previous novel, and thus obliged to keep a history that had no impact or relevance here?

Further, poor grammar and editing litter the landscape. Some of it is just the run-of-the-mill unclear antecedent, pronoun displacement, or subject/verb agreement variety, but some is giggle-inducing, such as: these were perilous waters that he trod. Attempting to discern the author’s intent – was he metaphorically treading water or treading on dangerous ground, or what – is pointless. Neither reading back nor reading ahead gives any more grounding or clarity. Struggling with the syntax only results in a mental image of walking on water, an odd literary device, and one rarely effective since its first use.

Perhaps ultimately most annoying is the writing…the degree to which word choice – such as it is! – and rhythm and nuance are simply dispensed with; in their place is a shorthand wrought of punctuation and grammar abuse…an abundance of italic intensity, as it were, set off by ellipses…or One. Word. Sentences…with an astonishing bent toward the exclamatory! And the incomplete.

The entire bundle is too mawkish, too maudlin, too melodramatic, to be endured. Put down this bag of potato chips, I implore you! How about a nice piece of fruit, instead?

--Laura Scott

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