If, perchance, you think historical romance is getting awfully cute and
bubbly these days, then Meagan McKinney is your antidote. Less sweetness and
light than a strong shot of cough medicine, McKinney's books focus on the
darker, more raw side of attraction and romance. Her new work, The
Fortune Hunter, is no exception.
The Fortune Hunter takes place in New York City of 1881, a time when
the spiritualist craze was at its height. Parlor mediums, the
nineteenth-century equivalent of New Age channelers, would conduct seances
to speak with the spirits. And in The Fortune Hunter, the most
successful medium of them all is the beautiful Countess Lovaenya, who
contacts the dead from her upscale townhouse at Washington Square.
In reality, the Countess is an ingenious fraud, who in another life was
plain Lavinia Murphy, an orphan from St. Louis. In her trade as a
spiritualist, she employs tricks and deceits learned from carnies and
gypsies. It has allowed her to escape from a future in prostitution, and
allowed her to rise in the world, so that her clients are among the most
fashionable and wealthy in the city.
When one of her most devoted clients dies and leaves his estate to Lavinia,
she is made rich beyond her wildest dreams. But there are terrible
complications, since the will effectively disinherits a crippled daughter,
as well as ignores an illegitimate son, Edward Stuyvesant-French. Edward,
furious at his father's selfish and foolish act, makes it his mission in
life to expose Lavinia as a conniving con artist, and restore his sister's
Edward begins to dog Lavinia's footsteps, never allowing her a moment's
peace, challenging her to perform a seance for him. Lavinia quite rightly
demurs, for her success depends upon her audience's gullibility. Eventually,
Edward does catch Lavinia in one of her tricks, and blackmails her into
signing over his father's fortune. He also offers her a sizable pay-off to
stay away from his sister, Daisy, who in the interim has become very fond of
Lavinia. This Edward will not tolerate, for to him, Lavinia is a lying
But Daisy's will prevails. In her sweet, inoffensive way, she manages things
so that everyone concerned are soon on a ship bound for England and the
Grande Tour. When Edward discovers that he has not escaped Lavinia's
grasping tentacles, he is outraged. Lavinia, who is voyaging to Europe to
find a respectable husband for her sister Hazel, wants nothing more than for
Edward to leave her alone. But despite all the bitterness between them, they
are also bound together by what Edward dismissively terms "carnal
fascination." Lots of shipboard romancing ensues.
With The Fortune Hunter, McKinney sets up enough story and conflict
to write a novel perhaps twice as long. Unfortunately, while the book has a
strong beginning, the story definitely peters out the moment the characters
get on the ship. I found it strange that though McKinney obviously worked
hard researching the spiritualist phenomenon, she doesn't apply it well.
After Lavinia sets off for Europe, she drops her spiritualist persona, and
seeking respectability, wants never to "speak to the dead" again. Whatever
pluck Lavinia once had, that allowed her to rise from dire poverty, seems to
desert her. Watching her suffer agonies from love of Edward become very
tiresome. Can everyone say CO-DEPENDENT?
Why Lavinia is subject to such love, or even "carnal fascination" with
Edward, is an utter mystery. Throughout the book, his manner is unfailingly
abusive toward her. Many a romantic hero is brooding and cynical; but Edward
is one of the most evil-tempered heroes I've seen in romantic fiction. Where
else can you find a hero, who in the first sex scene, calls the heroine "a
sweet piece of meat"? He may have good reason to think the worst of Lavinia,
but his constant verbal attacks on her are troubling, especially in light of
Lavinia's growing, masochistic desire for him.
Once or twice, Lavinia and
Edward drop their hostilities to share a good belly laugh, but this hardly
compensates for his nastiness, which continues nearly to the last page. When
Edward finally does declare his love for Lavinia, it struck me as
unbelievable. Whatever process he goes through, to bounce from hate to love,
is obscure. And in a good romance novel, I want to see not only two
characters falling in love, but how and why they fall in love.
There were other problems with the shipboard section of The Fortune
Hunter. While McKinney often creates very effective settings, I had no
sense that these characters were actually at sea. Daisy, who is confined to
a wheelchair, never seems to have any problem getting around, despite the
pitch and swell of the sea. Nobody aboard seems to suffer from seasickness,
either. While Lavinia and Edward's shipboard romance flounders, the romances
of the minor characters come across as trite and superficial. For example,
Hazel falls for an affianced duke, but the only real obstacle presented is the
duke's getting disentangled from his steel heiress fiancée and not that Hazel is an
illegitimate con-artist! Add to this the question that Lavinia may be a real
psychic after all, and The Fortune Hunter takes a very silly spin.
Personally, I love romances with darker themes and somewhat dysfunctional
characters. Therefore, I have a couple of Meagan McKinney's books occupying
my bookshelf. But I cannot recommend The Fortune Hunter, because to
me it hardly qualifies as a romance, since every sex scene contains an
abusive element; and because ultimately, love seems to humiliate the hero
and heroine, rather than ennoble them.