One of the great pleasures of reading romance for me is identifying with the heroine. When she’s ill-tempered, shrill and childish, well, it’s a lot less fun.
Portia (Pip) Merriem, at 27, has rejected marriage to pursue an education and is now fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit Egypt. As the boat approaches the harbor at Alexandria, however, her plain, sober, respectable and unmarried chaperon confesses that she is pregnant. Isabel only agreed to make this trip to hide her shame.
In spite of Isabel’s condition, the two manage to see quite a lot of Egypt, living on a houseboat and traveling along the Nile. The trouble starts when Isabel goes into labor, six weeks early, in a remote location.
One of Pip’s servants goes for help but has difficulty locating someone to assist two foreign devils. Then, astonishingly, who should he find out there in the middle of Egypt but John Henry Lovell. Pip and John Henry grew up together in England, John Henry the son of a farmer, Pip the daughter of a widowed noblewoman in reduced circumstances. Their childhood friendship ended when her mother married a Marquess and the teenaged Pip made it clear that John Henry was henceforth beneath her notice. Heartbroken, John Henry left for India to make his fortune. Ten years later he’s in Egypt on business before returning to England.
John Henry arrives at the houseboat too late to help Isabel but in time to save the baby with an impromptu Caesarian section. Pip decides that, although Isabel intended to give the baby up for adoption, the little boy is now her responsibility and she must keep him.
Unfortunately, no matter what story she tells, people in England will assume the baby is Pip’s. Without telling her of his improved fortunes, John Henry persuades her to marry him - in name only, naturally - to avoid scandal.
No, wait. To say “persuades” implies that some thought, some discussion was involved.
In spite of the fact that she’s been described as someone dedicated to preserving her own freedom, Pip decides to keep the baby without any reflection at all. She marries John Henry literally within minutes of it being suggested to her. Then, after begging for John Henry’s help and having spent no time whatsoever considering the ramifications, she spends most of the rest of the book blaming John Henry repeatedly for all the changes in her life that she doesn’t like.
It’s impossible to sympathize. Even after returning to England to live in what she thinks are fairly humble conditions, Pip has a full-time nanny and servants. She has time and freedom - to complete her scholarly paper on Egypt, to perfect the sketches and watercolors that will accompany it - that even modern mothers would envy. In spite of this, she is an absolute shrew. I can understand why John Jenry loved her as an adventurous child, but what he sees in the selfish, strident “adult” is a complete mystery.
Eventually, Pip discovers the error of her ways although the resolution is unsatisfying. Her abrupt transformation is of a spiritual nature and, while I don’t question the power of belief, I think the reader and the story deserved a better preparation for it. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but if prayer was the answer, I’d have preferred that the Deus not arrive ex machina, completely out of nowhere and looking more like a literary contrivance than a deity.
Finally, these characters share a lot of history, which is sketchily covered and seemed incomplete. I discovered as I was writing the review that this book is a follow-up to last year’s In the Presence of Angels and familiarity with that book seems to be required. Ms. Kingsley’s fans may not have difficulty picking up the threads of the story, but I was confused.
This story had an interesting premise and some great possibilities for a great heroine to really shine. It was a shame Pip squandered so much of it complaining and feeling sorry for herself.