It is always agreeable to read an author one has not cared for previously,
and see that she is a much better writer than you gave her credit for.
While Jo-Ann Power's newest work, Never Before, contained distracting
flaws, and is not a romance to my taste, I also found it a pleasant read,
and admired Power's exceptional use of language.
Never Before is the first in a trilogy, inspired by the 19th-century
American heiresses who traveled to Europe in search of titled husbands. The
heroine of Never Before is Ann Brighton, the daughter of a brash
American millionaire. Actually, Ann has no wish to acquire a title, thus
requiring her to marry some chinless, inbred aristocrat, less interested in
her than in using her dowry to repair the family estate. She would much
prefer to stay in Virginia and raise horses, and have nothing to do with her
father's schemes to marry her off.
Thus, Ann only very reluctantly accompanies her father to Europe. Though
husband-hunting isn't her cup of tea, she decides to wisely use her time in
Europe buying horses for the farm she wants back in Virginia. At an Irish
horse fair, Ann meets a strikingly handsome and charming gentleman, who does
her a great favor. He turns out to be Rhys Kendall, sixteenth duke of
Carlton, a man with one of the most illustrious pedigrees in the land, but
whose fortunes have fallen on hard times. It seems Ann's father is
responsible for his near bankruptcy, and so Ann and Rhys part, expecting
never to see each other again.
But of course, they meet again in London, and afterward, Ann can think of no
one else. But because Rhys and her father are enemies, any future for them
seems hopeless. Ann is also deeply pessimistic about marriage, having been
once jilted herself, and witnessing her parents' unhappy relationship.
However, Rhys is so unfailingly kind, good, and protective, that she cannot
resist loving him. But sinister forces are at work, which threaten Ann and
Rhys' happiness. There have to be, otherwise this doting and pleasant
couple would marry in Chapter 3, and that would be the end of it. Someone is
writing terrible things about Ann in the scandal sheets, someone is spying
on her and rifling through her things, and then she is nearly abducted. Ann
and Rhys must uncover the deleterious doings against them, and make peace
with Ann's father, before they can happily settle down and order their
his-and-hers set of monogrammed towels.
In short, the conflict in Never Before struck me as sufficient, but a
little weak. Rhys is, after all, the sort of enemy her father invites to
dinner, and wants to be part of a new business endeavor. What sort of
obstacle is that? The mystery of who is trying to harm Ann develops somewhat
late in the book, and the identity of her antagonist is pretty obvious.
Not only was it hard for me to become involved in the plot, but I found the
characters sketchy as well. What do we really know about them? We know Ann
likes horses, and hates hats. She spent her formative years surrounded by a
terrible war, but seems only superficially touched by the experience. Also,
Ann is one of those unconvincing heroines who are supposed to be nineteen,
but think, talk, and act like they are thirty-five. Rhys is even more of a
blank page, but seems composed of mist and rainbows. He is so impossibly
perfect I half wished he had a big scar, or was missing a leg or an eye, or
had bouts of insanity – but then, that is a Laura Kinsale hero.
Power also isn't keen on conveying setting or atmosphere. The story begins
in post-Civil War Virginia, but the book provides little flavor of the Old
Dominion. And I can vouch that her characters don't sound like any
Virginians I know. When her characters are in Europe, again there is a very
curious lack of feeling for place. Ann complains of the cold, but other than
that, the characters seem to exist in a sort of fictive innerspace. After
all, Power's England is a place where titled nobleman are wheeler-dealer
businessmen, sort of like in Dallas or Dynasty, when actually
there was then a great social gulf between those in trade and the
aristocratic landed class.
While Never Before did elicit many criticisms on my part, as I read
past the middle, I began to enjoy it more. Power is deft at handling scenes
showing the growing relationship between her hero and heroine. Her elegant
use of language, which at times can be exquisitely delicate, is some of the
most original I've read in years. In some ways, it reminds me of Susan
Johnson at her most lyrical, although Power's writing is much more precise
and economical. She can almost be used as a textbook example on how to avoid
hackneyed and cliched love scene writing.
While I prefer historical romance with greater character development, more
intense conflict, and a thorough grounding in historical reality, Power's
use of language is so subtle and unusual that it elevated a rather mediocre
story into a surprisingly genial read.