Every now and then I get a caffeine craving. When I’m lucky, there’s soda at hand, but usually I have to go out and buy it. During one such craving, I opened the fridge, saw a bottle of soda, and poured a glass. The first glass was great, but once I got to the second, I realized that the soda had lost much of its fizz; it had been hiding in the back of the fridge for so long that it was a bit stale. I experienced something similar when I read Judith O’Brien’s Enter the Hero. Like that bottle of soda, the story started well but ultimately went flat.
Emily Fairfax has a secret. She lives a quiet life in Ireland, where she lives with her absent-minded father and younger sister, Letty. She’s also a famous playwright who writes under the name Edgar St. John. One recent play has attracted the interest of a man who sees himself in a character and doesn’t like the way he’s portrayed. This man, Lord Ogilvie, sends Emily/Edgar a letter challenging him to a duel. Lucius Ashford will act as his second.
The duel doesn’t go as planned. Emily shows up and represents herself as Edgar’s emissary. She claims that Edgar is ill and therefore cannot attend. Ogilvie and Lucius return home with Emily and end up sharing breakfast. After Lucius recognizes a phrase Emily uses as a phrase from one of Edgar’s plays, he confronts her about Edgar’s identity. Emily admits the truth, and they have a conversation about dueling. Despite their difference of opinion — Lucius believes duels are foolish, while Emily calls them “the way to settle an argument, if one has the courage of his convictions. If one is brave and good and true” — he’s attracted to her and asks for permission to write to her.
Their courtship is far from smooth. Emily writes Lucius a letter and afterward believes she was too bold, especially when she receives no response. In fact, Lucius had responded to the letter, which was apparently misdirected. Emily takes out her frustration by writing a new play, The Reluctant Rogue, about a character named Sir Luscious Ash-Heap. Emily’s sister Letty finds the play and sends it to Emily’s publisher. You can guess what happens next. (And if not, you can find out by reading the book’s back cover.)
Lucius is the most compelling aspect of the story. He is private, highly principled, and quietly devoted to Emily. He won my heart in one early scene where he offers Emily public support when she wears a horrible hat Letty made for her. However, I can’t say the same for Emily. I was repelled by her impassioned defense and romanticized view of dueling. Later, I was horrified when her play is performed. To her credit, Emily tried to stop its production, but the result is devastating.
This leads me to my main problem with Enter the Hero. The play provides much of the story’s conflict, and O’Brien sets it up strongly. She also skillfully portrays the impact of the play on the different characters. Unfortunately, the resolution isn’t as skillfully depicted, which leads to a payoff that falls flat. I read the last several chapters wanting more and wondering what went wrong.
Enter the Hero has some good moments, and O’Brien is clearly a proficient writer. But in spite of the book’s happy ending, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.