The Elusive Flame

The Reluctant Suitor

by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
(Morrow, $24.95, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-054552-9
There is absolutely no question that Kathleen I. Woodiwiss changed romance fiction. Her first novel, The Flame and the Flower, made a huge impact on the market and the audience, and the romance genre hasn’t been the same since. So when I began reading her last book, Everlasting, I felt some sorrow. (Ms. Woodiwiss died in July 2007.) There will not be another book to follow.

Sadly, I have to report it’s not very good. Ms. Woodiwiss wrote some classic romance novels, but she did not save the best for last.

Abrielle of Harrington has come to the court of King Henry with her mother Elspeth, a Saxon, and her Norman stepfather, Vachel de Gerard.. The family hopes the king is about to reward Vachel for his service in the Crusades. Unbeknownst to others, Vachel is teetering on the brink of financial ruin.

Abrielle is undoubtedly the most beautiful girl at the court. She is beset by eager suitors who desire both her alluring self and her assumed impressive dowry. She cannot help noticing the tall Scot Raven Seabern (there’s an explanation for his improbable name), an emissary from King David. How dare he stare at her so boldly? Yes, he’s handsome and manly, but she is definitely not interested.

Abrielle had been engaged to Weldon de Marlé, an older, kindly man, but he died in a fall shortly before they were to be wed. Weldon’s half-brother Desmond who inherited is attracted to her, but she is repulsed by him.

To the family’s great distress, the king bestows no honors. They are in dire straits. There will be no rich dowry for Abrielle. Abrielle cannot help noticing that her former eager suitors have turned their back on her and are now looking at other girls with better financial futures.

Abrielle leaves her silver drinking goblet in the banquet hall. In the middle of the night, she remembers and runs back to retrieve it. (Abrielle may be beautiful, but she’s not too bright. This isn’t the only time she’ll go running down the halls barefoot and clad only in a nightdress.) Desmond spies and grabs her. Overcome by lust, he is about to have his lecherous way with her when Raven intervenes and saves her.

Desmond means to have Abrielle by any means. He proposes marriage. He’s a slimy toad, ugly and repulsive, but what choice does Abrielle have? Her family needs the generous marriage settlement. Being the self-sacrificing type, she agrees to wed him to save her family. They’re properly grateful. Many guests are invited to Desmond’s castle to join in the wedding festivities. Among them are Raven and his father, Laird Cedric.

Now obviously Desmond is not the hero of this story. There has to be a way for Raven to get the beauteous heroine for there to be a happily ever after, but that requires revealing events that occur in the second half of the book so they won’t be mentioned here.

And that is but one problem with the book: the pacing. The course to Abrielle’s and Desmond’s wedding is a slow and arduous path. Along the way there is ample opportunity for Abrielle to attribute motives to Raven’s actions that set a Big Misunderstanding in motion. Abrielle, of course, has dreams of finding a man who will love her for herself, not for her fortune or her beauty. There are times when a reader might be excused for getting weary of the annoying heroine and hoping she takes a fall over a high parapet.

Everlasting suffers from frequent departures from reality. Historical inaccuracy is a major flaw. Titles are used incorrectly more often than not. (The most egregious is the use of ‘squire.’ This term wasn’t used to mean a landed country gentleman until the seventeenth century.) Matters of legal implication are violated or ignored. Anachronisms abound. If an author is going to set a book in 1139, it ought to have some resemblance to the designated time period. It’s far easier to imagine this story and these characters appearing in a Disney animated feature than in any history book.

One thing that has remained a constant in Ms. Woodiwiss’s writing is the deepest, purplest prose ever to see print. If a scene, an emotion, a character can be described in a few pithy words, then a lengthy, florid description must be better.

His wildly thumping heart pounded in his ears and against the inner wall of his chest. In an expanse of time that spanned the chasm between life and death, an eternity flashed before his mind’s eye. Precipitous views, perhaps comparable or mayhap totally dissimilar to those his elder half brother had glimpsed in the swiftly fleeting moments prior to plunging to his death, filled Desmond’s mind with a swiftly burgeoning dread. His breath caught again in a ragged gasp as terror cauterized his very being with his own expanding visions of what seemed his hellish doom. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Enough already.

I have made some compromises in my three-heart rating of this book. Its flaws vastly outnumber its virtues. If I weren’t taking into consideration that it’s the final work of a respected author, it would likely be receiving a lower grade.

I cannot recommend Everlasting, but it is the end of an era so you may want to read it for auld lang syne. You will, however, probably want to borrow it from a library or wait until it is out in paperback.. An even better idea is to search out copies of Ms. Woodiwiss’s earlier titles such as The Flame and the Flower and Shanna and let her memory rest in peace unsullied by thoughts of this final book.

--Lesley Dunlap

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