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Angel in My Arms

 
Once More by Colleen Faulkner
(Zebra, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-8217-5984-1
***
As I look back on the experience of reading Colleen Faulkner's Once More, it strikes me that this is the kind of book that makes it or breaks it based on a reader's personal preferences. It's sort of a matter of taste, and despite some undeniably commendable elements, it just didn't completely work for me. Your reaction might be different.

The plot revolves around Lady Julia Thomas, a young noblewoman living in England in 1660. Upon the death of her father, Julia faces the prospect of marrying the Earl of St. Martin, her nearest male relative and thus, the heir to her father's estate. Their betrothal had been arranged by her father before his death, and now, bearing the responsibility for the livelihood of her simple-minded younger sister and her self-indulgent mother, Julia sees no choice but to marry a man she does not love. Not an usual arrangement in this era, certainly, but that doesn't make it much more palatable to Julia.

Nevertheless, she knows her duty and bears up bravely. But when Julia, her sister, and her mother move into the Earl's London house, she finds it more like a tomb than a home. The Earl, Simeon, is cold, harsh, exacting, and… odd. He has what doctors today would likely diagnose as obsessive-compulsive disorder. He's a fanatic about cleanliness, washes his hands until they become chapped and bloody, and wears garlic constantly to ward off disease. As he makes clear early on, he can hardly bear to touch another human being, certainly not an unclean woman like Julia. What's more, his household runs with extreme orderliness, and he is adamantly opposed to Julia's having any part in the managing of it.

So Julia is at a loss. Why exactly does this man want a wife?

When she meets Simeon's cousin-in-residence, Griffin, the Baron Archer, this question begins to weigh heavily on her mind. She finds Griffin intriguing and strangely attractive, and so did I. I say strangely because Griffin is not your typical romantic hero – or at least, he doesn't appear to be. This was my first experience with a Restoration-era romance, and it was eye-opening. Never before had I come across a hero who prances about in high-heeled slippers, wearing decorative patches on his face and fluttering pastel-colored handkerchiefs at every moment. My instinctual thought was – there's got to be something more to this man. Something hidden. Some delicious mystery…

And that's pretty much Julia's reaction, too. The two hit it off immediately via their mutual interest in literature, which Griffin is forever quoting, and each senses something compelling about the other. Gradually, Griffin reveals more and more of his true self to Julia, and their feelings for each other grow stronger.

But alas, it's not to be. Simeon may not want a wife for any practical reason, but he's really got a thing about ownership. Julia is his, and when she approaches him about breaking off the betrothal, he threatens her with some truly dire consequences. So the marriage plans proceed. What choice does she have, especially given that Griffin himself is already married? To add to the mix, Griffin's "secret identity" compels him to honor duty before romance, and he can't sacrifice everything for the sake of the love that continues to develop between them.

Ah, obstacles, obstacles everywhere. These obstacles are really the focus of the book, and perhaps that was my main problem with it. For the majority of the story, all of the conflict is external. Griffin and Julia fall in love quickly and irreversibly, without a moment of doubt, and they continue to be in love throughout the book. They simply have to find a way to be together, past all the things that threaten to keep them apart. In my view, that's just never as compelling as a story about heart and mind, trust and doubt, the grand uncertainty and risk of loving another person.

All the risks here are of the life-and-limb variety, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Like I said, it's more a matter of taste. I prefer a different kind of story. That doesn't mean that I found reading Once More to be an unpleasant experience. It held my interest, and it may do a lot more than that for other readers. It's got lots of assets – interesting characters, effective sexual tension, a well-executed plot, a truly nasty villain, and lots of high adventure. But for me, those elements just don't add up to a winner when a book leaves me cold around the heart.

--Ellen Hestand


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