An Unexpeced Pleasure

Beyond Compare

Hard-Hearted Texan

The Hidden Heart

Impetuous

Promise Me Tomorrow

Secrets of the Heart

A Stolen Heart

Swept Away

Winterset

 
An Independent Woman
by Candace Camp
(HQN, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-77097-9
***
Juliana and Nicholas spent many years together when they were young, both of them living as charity cases with somewhat distant relatives at Lychwood Hall. Nicholas was the nephew of Trenton and Lilith Barre, and Juliana’s mother was cousin to Lilith. Generally tortured by Trenton, Lilith and their two children, Juliana and Nicholas turned to each other for companionship and comfort. Fifteen years after Nicholas ran away from Lychwood Hall and left for America, he is back in London as Lord Barre.

Turns out he was not a penniless orphan, but was heir to his grandfather’s title and property. He had been placed under Uncle Trenton’s direct guardianship, but he was always set to inherit upon grandpa’s death. Juliana is now in London as well, as paid companion to a daughter of the minor country gentry making her come-out. Juliana comes face-to-face with the newly minted earl, who not only recognizes her, but also dances with her and then continues to show her favor by calling on her at her employer’s home and taking her for a drive in the park, unescorted.

This is exceptionally displeasing to Juliana’s employer, and the beautiful and jealous girl to whom she is a companion. She is dismissed from their employ, but is fortunate to have a friend who is happy to take her in until she secures employment again. Before she even has a chance to look for another placement, Nicholas has come to resolve her dilemma by insisting that they marry. Not one to be bossed around, Juliana isn’t sure she wants this passionless marriage-of-convenience he is offering. Sure, she’s 27, penniless, and essentially without family or prospects, but that doesn’t make her a charity case. She’s an independent woman; she will make her own decisions.

And that decision? Within 24 hours, a mere18 pages, Juliana says “yes,” and they’re off to Lychwood Hall to marry and face down Aunt Lilith and her wretched son Crandall, who now runs the property and is livid about being displaced, although they must have always known that this day was coming, and that Nicholas was the heir, and not he.

Oh well, this is just one of those inconsistencies that niggle at your brain with this type of book – a book that is essentially well written and pleasant enough while you are reading it (minus the little niggles, of course), but is imminently forgettable the moment you put it down. There is a bit of a diverting mystery to be solved while Nicholas and Juliana work their way into sharing a bed. It is not a particularly compelling mystery, although it has a richly interesting conclusion. But with the mystery, as with the love story, you have a sense of moseying along, going with the flow, following the current. It’s not an unpleasant trip, but one that is several components short of being deeply satisfying.

The major missing component is depth in the main characters. Nicholas, in particular, is quite the cipher, one we know no better at the conclusion of the story than at the beginning. In fact, while we know throughout the tale that Juliana has always loved Nicholas and long fantasized about his return, we know neither how Nicholas felt in the past nor how he feels in the present. It isn’t clear by word or deed that he loves her, until he is afraid that she’s about to be murdered. Juliana is not particularly well drawn, either. In fact, it is not at all clear from whence the book title is gleaned; why is she labeled “an independent woman?” She’s only independent insofar as she is unmarried – she’s not a woman of means by any stretch of the imagination. She is actually just a working stiff, a companion, a glorified member of “the help,” circumstances she willingly changes when offered an alternative.

By the conclusion of the book, all seems fine, the language is articulate and correct (minus the occasional “sleep with” euphemism), the settings are lush and well articulated, but in the end it’s just ho-hum, a pick-it-up-or-put-it-down experience. And when I begin to wonder if I should just put-it-down and appease my guilty conscience by cleaning out the refrigerator, I know that I’m in three-heart territory – an acceptable read if you have no other options.

--Laura Scott


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