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Never Say Never by Jo-Ann Power
(Pocket Sonnet, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-671-02422-1
***
I have not read the first two books in Jo-Ann Power's American Beauties series and I can't tell whether this was a disadvantage or not. I wonder if I would have been more engaged with the characters had I met them before. I wonder if I would have found Never Say Never more compelling if I had a better feel for the interrelationships between the hero, the heroine and the characters from the other books. All I know is that, despite an interesting premise, Never Say Never came across to me as a simply acceptable romance.

The heroine is Augusta (Gus) VanderHorn, one of four "American Beauties," heiresses who came to Britain five years earlier in 1875. At the time, Gus was only sixteen and not really in the market for a husband. One of the "Beauties" was her sister Colleen, and she made an absolutely splendid match. She "caught" Bryce Falconer, the 12th Earl of Aldersworth. But she didn't keep him. After their son Ford was born (somewhat "prematurely"), Colleen embarked on a career of such excess that her once devoted husband felt his honor and his sanity required that he seek a divorce.

Gus stayed in England, had a successful come-out, and has maintained the friendship she had developed with Bryce, despite the divorce. She has become a surrogate mother to young Ford while his own mother pursued an increasingly scandalous course. Bryce has no idea that Gus had fallen in love with her sister's beau and has measured all her own suitors against him and found them wanting. Yet Gus has also remained close to her self-destructive sister. Only she understands the childhood trauma that has made Colleen what she is.

One night, a desperate Bryce comes to Gus. His beloved son has been kidnapped by his own mother, who has taken up with a radical Irish nationalist. Colleen is demanding 2 million for his return. Ford is a sickly child who was ill when he was seized from his nursery. Bryce is desperate to find the boy and he believes that Gus may know where her sister is.

Gus knows where her sister was recently, and she is more than willing to help Bryce recover her well-loved nephew. But she insists on going with him, despite the fact that her reputation may be sullied if news of her accompanying Bryce gets out. The two with the help of their friends take steps to cover their tracks, and set out for Birmingham.

As they travel together, Bryce begins to reevaluate his feelings towards Gus. They have long been friends and confidants, but he always saw her as the kid sister. Now he realizes how much she means to him, how desirable she is, how important she is to his happiness. For her part, Gus still loves Bryce.

I know, at this point, some of you are saying, "But wait! According to British law, Bryce and Gus can never marry since a man can't marry his sister-in-law." Exactly! And Power uses this impediment most effectively. Gus has always known that her love for Bryce is hopeless.

Never Say Never has a strong plot and an attractive hero and heroine. Power is very good at describing the mutual anguish of two people who are the victims of an out-dated law that prevents them from finding the happiness they deserve. Why then did I find the book merely acceptable?

I must conclude that there was something about Power's writing that distanced me from the story. Power uses internal monologues continually. We spend an inordinate amount of time in the character's heads. And the thoughts she describes seem somehow unlikely or forced.

For example, Bryce is riding in a carriage with a sleeping Gus. He has just begun to realize how much she means to him. And his thoughts turn to his business success and his career as an investor in railroads and shipping lines. Or even more distracting, the culminating moment in their relationship is about to happen, and Bryce mulls over the first two women he made love to. I was all too often taken out of the story by these long introspective passages which seemed designed less to move the story along and to illuminate the characters' personalities, than to provide a kind of backstory. The writing seemed to do too much telling and not enough showing.

These failures are the more disappointing because Power uses language very well. She has also clearly done her homework about British society in 1880. And she uses the Anglo-Irish conflict as an effective backdrop. (I know there will be some readers who will take exception to her portrayal of the Fenians and her particular take on the "Irish Question." Just remember that one side's patriot is another side's terrorist.)

When all is said and done, I did not find Never Say Never the kind of compelling romance that I can recommend. It just didn't come together for me, but maybe other readers will feel differently.

--Jean Mason


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