has also reviewed:

Gifts
Nightingale's Song
Treasures

 
Never Before by Jo-Ann Power
(Pocket Books, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-671-00898-6
***
It is always agreeable to read an author one has not cared for previously, and see that she is a much better writer than you gave her credit for. While Jo-Ann Power's newest work, Never Before, contained distracting flaws, and is not a romance to my taste, I also found it a pleasant read, and admired Power's exceptional use of language.

Never Before is the first in a trilogy, inspired by the 19th-century American heiresses who traveled to Europe in search of titled husbands. The heroine of Never Before is Ann Brighton, the daughter of a brash American millionaire. Actually, Ann has no wish to acquire a title, thus requiring her to marry some chinless, inbred aristocrat, less interested in her than in using her dowry to repair the family estate. She would much prefer to stay in Virginia and raise horses, and have nothing to do with her father's schemes to marry her off.

Thus, Ann only very reluctantly accompanies her father to Europe. Though husband-hunting isn't her cup of tea, she decides to wisely use her time in Europe buying horses for the farm she wants back in Virginia. At an Irish horse fair, Ann meets a strikingly handsome and charming gentleman, who does her a great favor. He turns out to be Rhys Kendall, sixteenth duke of Carlton, a man with one of the most illustrious pedigrees in the land, but whose fortunes have fallen on hard times. It seems Ann's father is responsible for his near bankruptcy, and so Ann and Rhys part, expecting never to see each other again.

But of course, they meet again in London, and afterward, Ann can think of no one else. But because Rhys and her father are enemies, any future for them seems hopeless. Ann is also deeply pessimistic about marriage, having been once jilted herself, and witnessing her parents' unhappy relationship. However, Rhys is so unfailingly kind, good, and protective, that she cannot resist loving him. But sinister forces are at work, which threaten Ann and Rhys' happiness. There have to be, otherwise this doting and pleasant couple would marry in Chapter 3, and that would be the end of it. Someone is writing terrible things about Ann in the scandal sheets, someone is spying on her and rifling through her things, and then she is nearly abducted. Ann and Rhys must uncover the deleterious doings against them, and make peace with Ann's father, before they can happily settle down and order their his-and-hers set of monogrammed towels.

In short, the conflict in Never Before struck me as sufficient, but a little weak. Rhys is, after all, the sort of enemy her father invites to dinner, and wants to be part of a new business endeavor. What sort of obstacle is that? The mystery of who is trying to harm Ann develops somewhat late in the book, and the identity of her antagonist is pretty obvious.

Not only was it hard for me to become involved in the plot, but I found the characters sketchy as well. What do we really know about them? We know Ann likes horses, and hates hats. She spent her formative years surrounded by a terrible war, but seems only superficially touched by the experience. Also, Ann is one of those unconvincing heroines who are supposed to be nineteen, but think, talk, and act like they are thirty-five. Rhys is even more of a blank page, but seems composed of mist and rainbows. He is so impossibly perfect I half wished he had a big scar, or was missing a leg or an eye, or had bouts of insanity but then, that is a Laura Kinsale hero.

Power also isn't keen on conveying setting or atmosphere. The story begins in post-Civil War Virginia, but the book provides little flavor of the Old Dominion. And I can vouch that her characters don't sound like any Virginians I know. When her characters are in Europe, again there is a very curious lack of feeling for place. Ann complains of the cold, but other than that, the characters seem to exist in a sort of fictive innerspace. After all, Power's England is a place where titled nobleman are wheeler-dealer businessmen, sort of like in Dallas or Dynasty, when actually there was then a great social gulf between those in trade and the aristocratic landed class.

While Never Before did elicit many criticisms on my part, as I read past the middle, I began to enjoy it more. Power is deft at handling scenes showing the growing relationship between her hero and heroine. Her elegant use of language, which at times can be exquisitely delicate, is some of the most original I've read in years. In some ways, it reminds me of Susan Johnson at her most lyrical, although Power's writing is much more precise and economical. She can almost be used as a textbook example on how to avoid hackneyed and cliched love scene writing.

While I prefer historical romance with greater character development, more intense conflict, and a thorough grounding in historical reality, Power's use of language is so subtle and unusual that it elevated a rather mediocre story into a surprisingly genial read.

--Meredith Moore


@ Please tell us what you think! back Back Home