A central problem with this book can be illustrated with a quick outline of the love triangle. In the late nineteenth century, the young Helena Cabot has a secret love affair with inventor Michael Rowan. Up-and-coming New York politician Troy Barnes wants the political connection to Helena’s powerful senator father so he buys off Michael by offering him a prestigious appointment to an Institute. Michael absconds leaving Helena pregnant so she marries Troy passing Michael’s son off as Troy’s. Soon after her father’s death nine years later, Troy learns of her deceit and beats her.
Who’s the heroine here? The one who passed another man’s child off on an unsuspecting husband and feels ill-used when he becomes enraged? Who’s the hero? The one who got a young woman pregnant in an era when bearing an illegitimate child was utter disaster, then moved on to greener pastures without a backward look? Who’s the villain? The poor schmuck who’s been led to believe another man’s son to be his own?
They could be more properly termed protagonists. The admirable qualities that a hero and heroine are supposed to have aren’t exhibited here. These are two self-serving characters without a spark of attraction between them. My sympathies are with poor Troy even though he’s cast in the worst possible light as a wife-beater and a crooked politician. Hey! This was the era of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed - crooked politics were practically a New York tradition!
As the wife of a powerful U.S. senator, Helena is the social leader in Saratoga Springs, New York. She is determined to divorce her dastardly husband. She has her secretary write Michael with whom she has had no contact since he left her. She asks him to assist her in obtaining her divorce by agreeing to be named correspondent, but Michael refuses. (Michael is consistently referred to as ‘Professor,’ but he appears to have no university affiliation.)
Helena’s son William comes along as the two are speaking. Even though William strongly resembles his mother, in one glance, Michael knows William is his son because the two share eye color. Michael is angry that Helena has withheld from him the information that he’s a father. (Of course, he doesn’t acknowledge that his abrupt disappearance from her life might have been a contributing factor. The blurb on the book’s back cover puts it this way: “But Michael has just discovered a shattering truth ... and a reason to stay and fight for the woman he once lost.” Lost? He dumped her when a better offer came along!)
Helena rents Moon Lake Lodge, an abandoned resort in Saratoga Springs, and moves there with her son and her maid. She believes that having proof that Troy stole an election will protect her. Helena is determined to be her own woman at last, not a man’s accessory. She is oblivious to any trauma she might be inflicting on William. Michael seeks her out, wanting to become a father to his son. Soon Moon Lake Lodge will become a refuge for other mistreated women.
Helena is the beautiful, illiterate sister of the heroine in the author’s Halfway to Heaven. It’s not necessary to have read the previous book because Enchanted Afternoon stands on its own, but it does provide background to Helena’s and Michael’s relationship.
There are a number of awkward elements in Enchanted Afternoon, but one overriding problem is that it’s something of a misnomer to call it a romance. It’s hard to remember two characters who generate less sexual tension than these. At the end they say they’re in love, but their actions don’t bear it out. There are no longing glances, no furtive gropings, no secret yearnings. The objects of their strongest passions are Michael wants to be a father to his son, Helena wants to jettison her unwanted husband.
As a romance, it quickly loses its focus and veers off onto a polemic on women’s rights. The strongest and longest theme in the story is Helena’s growing awareness of the unfair treatment of women by men and by society in general as she devotes her efforts to encouraging woman to save themselves from the cruel domination of men. By and large, the male characters in this book are cardboard tyrants while the female characters are talented and clever, needing only freedom from their male-ordered lives before they flourish.
William’s portrayal is also unconvincing. Countless women can attest to the loyalty children feel for a parent when a marriage dissolves. He’s been raised believing he is the scion of an influential family, but William is unrealistically fast in switching his allegiance to Michael. Given the time period of the story, Helena unfairly criticizes Troy because he hasn’t been an attentive parent - hands-on fathering was not part of child-rearing practices in the nineteenth century, particularly among wealthy families with servants. Her own father, to whom she was so devoted, was similarly distant.
Susan Wiggs is an accomplished author with an impressive backlist, but she stumbles with Enchanted Afternoon. Readers who were charmed with Helena in Halfway to Heaven won’t be charmed anymore.