|Looking for a more unusual time and setting in a historical romance? Just for Her, which is set in the French Riviera in the 1920s, may be the right choice for you. The story is just as original and would deserve a higher rating were it not for some irritating flaws.
Juliana "Jules" DeRohan is the last of the Hapsburgs, the famous Austrian dynasty whose centuries-long reign over much of Europe came to an end with World War I. To pay off his debts, Jules's father married her to Dominic DeRohan, a British financier and industrialist. The marriage has never been consummated, and Jules has managed to live separately from her husband for several years now. This has not prevented him from being domineering and abusive. Since he won't let her go, she has one option: kill him.
Enter the Panther, a notorious cat burglar who steals from the rich and not-so-rich expatriate artists, aristocrats and socialites of the French Riviera. Jules lures him to her house with her family heirlooms and makes him an offer. The Panther refuses, but only after introducing Jules to some intense sexual pleasure.
Jules goads the Panther into another meeting and gets more of what she received the first time. After several more of these anonymous encounters, he eventually agrees to use his burglary skills to ruin her husband financially and thereby free her. Although he declares his love for her, he warns her that they have no future together and refuses to reveal his true identity (he always wears a mask, even in bed). As they plot against her husband, Jules attempts to identify the man who fulfills all her fantasies before the law can move in on him.
As the title implies, Just for Her is very much focused on the heroine and her different journeys of self-discovery. On this score, the novel works nicely. True, Jules is occasionally self-obsessed and self-centered. She knows very little about the private lives and concerns of the people she claims to know and love. She only becomes curious when it can help her uncover the Panther's true identity. On the other hand, she is strong and righteous. And she becomes appropriately fun-loving when she begins to take risks. I enjoyed watching her discover the unexpected thrills of planning a robbery, climbing up a building, and having a daring lover. I could have had a few more of the racy sex scenes.
Because the novel is told primarily from Jules's point of view, the Panther remains a more shadowy figure. This would be quite fitting if the novel wanted to be nothing more than a fantasia romantica, as the Panther himself promises. And yet, his mysteriousness makes it hard to believe in Jules's declarations of true love and her claims of growing maturity.
The Panther's identity is withheld until close to the end. Despite several red herrings, it does not come as a complete surprise. It did leave me with a couple of unanswered questions the writer should have dealt with.
My other big issue is with the background information. O'Neal has clearly done a lot of research about the social scene on the French Riviera and about the so-called "Lost Generation" of American expatriates. Unfortunately, the information is not always incorporated into the story in the most seamless fashion. Because too much of it reads like encyclopedia articles, it can detract away from an otherwise engrossing and original story.
I may not be completely sold on this novel, but O'Neal has grabbed my eye. I will be looking out for her in the future.