If love is an island already set in the sea, occupied by a waiting hero and a happy ending, then The Fifth Daughter is about a girl who takes a really long time to realize where she’s swimming to. Unfortunately, the delectable hero is rarely around to coach her along, making this less a romance than it is the story of how someone finally attains the maturity needed to recognize real love.
With four daughters to his name, Viscount Strathmore is convinced that his fifth child will be a boy. When the delivery goes wrong, and he must choose to save either wife or unborn son, he picks the latter - and never forgives the babe for being a girl, much less the spitting image of his late and much beloved wife.
Abandoned by her father and sisters in the Yorkshire countryside, Maresa Fairweather grows up under the care of a distantly affectionate aunt and an overindulgent staff. Though they spoil her, they cannot protect her from the cruel taunts of the local children, and the role of protector falls to the young son of neighboring gentry. Percy Bronwell’s unique refusal to tolerate her self-centeredness wins her respect, and the two form a fast friendship.
As years pass, Maresa’s maturation brings with it a stunning, exotic beauty that wreaks havoc on the local boys. Nor is Percy immune, though he knows that Maresa’s flighty temperament renders her incapable of fathoming, much less returning, his profound love. Indeed, Maresa is expert at entering into, and then breaking, engagements, and after a string of such incidents wins her father’s disapproving notice, she is forcibly removed to London for safekeeping.
When Maresa quickly returns to her old ways, her reputation is utterly ruined. She is packed off to her relatives in Italy, where Percy’s patience finally expires. But the ensuing confrontation drives them both to a recklessness that may destroy their last chance for a true and enduring love…
Ah, Percy. Intelligent, compassionate, and heartbreakingly loyal, he’s a gem of a hero.
He and Maresa have always loved each other, but Percy is smart enough to realize early that this love is sexual as well. He accepts all Maresa’s many faults, including an impressively vast self-absorption, and resigns himself to unrequited devotion.
Such a plot would work - and has in the past, excellently - if it then charted the awakening of Maresa’s love. At the very least, the hero and heroine should interact regularly. However, Percy is absent for frustratingly long periods of time, while Maresa, cheerfully oblivious, first occupies herself with breaking a bushel of hearts and then with the delights of Italy. Thus the bulk of escalating emotional tension is found not in the lovers, but in Maresa’s father’s furious resolve to marry her off if she doesn’t keep screwing up. Since there is little pleasure in following the fiascoes created by a blundering, self-centered girl, I can’t blame him.
Complicating matters further is the rather convoluted writing style that marks the opening chapters. Some paragraphs don’t seem to follow each other logically. Diction is weak - Maresa isn’t the only one having “gushy thoughts” here - and an overly analytical voice, often moralizing, distracts from the story. These flaws fade as the novel progresses, and since I don’t remember having thought this of Ms. Coffman’s prose before, I wonder if the final edition will have been further edited.
In parting, a word of warning: I have heard tell that some Italian-Americans are offended by The Sopranos’ depiction of Italians as men who “often go to great extremes to prove their courage by dominating women”, who “would rather kick the door than turn the knob”, and whose courage comes not from “a level-headed sort of cool”, but from a “hot head.” Since these are descriptions used by Miss Coffman’s characters to describe their own countrymen, I suggest those who avoid Gandolfini on principle also avoid The Fifth Daughter.