Donna Kauffman is the undisputed expert at bringing two people together and showing the reader the surprise, joy and delight they feel as they fall in love without misunderstandings or major trauma. To paraphrase an old 80’s song, she is all about the Power of Love. So it pains me to report that The Cinderella Rules was not my favorite Donna Kauffman novel. I rooted for the characters as they gradually discovered the magic, and was happy to see them ride off together into the sunset. But I was frustrated by the book’s slow pace and its awkward subplots.
Our hero and heroine are both the proverbial black sheep of their respective wealthy families. Darby Landon runs a horse ranch in Montana, far from her father’s wheeling and dealing in Washington, D.C. But an urgent phone call from her little sister Pepper sends Darby reluctantly into the lion’s den to serve as an escort for her father’s key client, a Swedish businessman. Before she’s ready for that engagement, however, Darby will have to undergo a crash course in etiquette and fashion, courtesy of Glass Slipper Inc., a lifestyle makeover firm run by three “fairy godmothers.”
Darby meets Shane Morgan in the limousine ride from Dulles Airport to Glass Slipper’s luxurious headquarters. He has just returned to D.C. after years of adventuring and globetrotting to deal with the huge empire he’s inherited upon the death of his imposing grandmother Alexandra. The doyenne of Glass Slipper, Mercedes, is his real godmother, and he takes an immediate interest in her newest project, Darby. By page 36 Darby and Shane are passionately kissing in the limo, but there’s trouble ahead. Shane wants to unload his inheritance and return to his nomadic lifestyle, but generations of Morgan history are resting on his uneasy shoulders. Darby meets her father’s client and finds him undeniably attractive yet disturbing, causing her to wonder if his business intentions are honorable. Darby and Shane have a fabulous time making out in public places, and they recognize a kindred soul in their mutual repudiation of their families’ snootiness and control issues. But they also realize their affair is destined to be short-lived because of the differences in their lifestyles. Or is it?
Cinderella Rules would have made a fabulous 5-heart Harlequin Blaze novel. It’s sexy, the characters are delightful, and they’re wrapped up in Kauffman’s trademarked wide-eyed wonder as they fall deeply in love. Shane may be a total fantasy – how many guys do you meet who are rich enough to do whatever they want but unconventional enough to eschew the whole corporate mindset? – but he’s a yummy package. It’s difficult to resist Shane when he looks at Darby and thinks: He could have told her that all the makeup, hair dye and designer clothing was wasted on her. What made her his Cinderella was that fast smile, the dry laugh, the quick wit. The way her eyes lit up with that hint of rebel; the way she looked at him and wanted him just because. Sigh.
But the book’s 400 pages have an uneasy rhythm. The Glass Slipper subplot is crammed into the first hundred pages and we see very little of Darby’s makeover in progress – one minute she’s Cowgirl Cinderella, the next she’s been “plucked and painted, waxed and lowlighted, exfoliated, lacquered and buffed.” Watching the transformation instead of reading about it would have been more entertaining. The three fairy godmothers are also underdeveloped – other than the fact that one is regal, one is plump and one is a vamp, we don’t know much about them, and their “Cinderella Rules” that open each chapter aren’t as amusing as they should be.
The suspense around the true nature of Darby’s father’s client simmers at a very low level throughout the novel, then briefly flares up, only to dissipate without any real resolution. There is one jaw-dropping surprise (do I smell sequel?) but with that exception, the suspense is less than intriguing. Kauffman gets a few extra points for allowing Darby to admit she is attracted to two men at once, although it’s obvious that only one of them is her Prince Charming in Black Sheep’s clothing.
The Cinderella Rules is enjoyable but slightly disappointing and occasionally slow-moving because of poor plotting. I have a suggestion for Kauffman: she should take the paranormal/fantasy aspect that made her earlier books such as The Legend MacKinnon and Legend of the Sorcerer so engaging and combine that with the Chick Lit she flirted with in her first trade paperback release, last year’s Big Bad Wolf Tells All. As long as she never forsakes her ability to capture the wonder of true love, she can’t go too far wrong.