by Connie Brockway, historical (2004)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6322-6
Before everybody groan and mutter, "Great, another glowing fangirl review", let me say that if this isn't a Connie Brockway book, it would be rated even higher by me. My Seduction, the first book in Connie Brockway's The Rose Hunters trilogy, is an often melodramatic, atmospheric, and very satisfying romance story with a touch of old-school larger-than-life elements of heroism and nobility, but it has its share of problems that prevents the story from coming together as well as it should. It may not stand up too well against some of the author's better books, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying it thoroughly.
The Rose Hunters has a story to tell instead of coming off as merely yet another "brotherhood of secret agent buddies" series. Four orphans, Christian "Kit" MacNeill, Douglas Stewart, Ramsey Munro, and Andrew Ross, grow up together in an abbey. Their upbringing is reminiscent of a Cameron Mackintosh melodrama: they grow up to become idealistic men with heroic notions of chivalry, fidelity, and piety. I half expect them to get together and break into Empty Chairs And Empty Tables, although they probably beat me to the punch by doing just that offstage after their attempt at spying for the French pro-monarchy rebels results in betrayal and the execution of Douglas Stewart. Poor Brother Fidelis must be singing On Easy Terms as he surveys the garden of roses where the boys toiled in before they grow up into men suspicious of each other, their friendship fragmented when each remaining man suspect the other of being the traitor in that botched mission.
The man that saved the three men from execution at the guillotine was Colonel Nash, who ended up dying at the hands of his captors. The three men pay the family of Colonel Nash one time before they go their separate ways to pledge their aid to the widow and her three daughters. Should they need aid, all they have to do is to send a yellow rose (the same rose planted in the rose garden of the abbey, handed by the three men to the widow's family to grow) to the abbey where the men grew up in and the men will come.
See what I mean about this story being a bombastic period musical melodrama in the making?
My Seduction is Kit MacNeill's story. Set three years later after the men have pledged their oath to the Nash women, circumstances have changed for the now widowed Katherine Nash Blackburn and her sisters. Her father's death results in the collapse of her family's finances and with her mother following her father after a bout of illness, Kate and her sisters are forced to live in genteel poverty. Her elder sister Helen is a companion to a horrid woman. Youngest sister Charlotte is luckier in that Charlotte manages to find some generous friends at school whose parents are willing to take her in and hopefully find Charlotte a good and most importantly rich person to marry. It is the once flighty and easy-going Kate though who surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the practical head of the family that pulled the sisters together through hard times.
Her cousin Grace was killed along with Grace's husband in a boating accident. Grace intended to live in England with her husband so before her death she had sent Kate a trunk filled with her clothes and trinkets. Kate hopes that she can use the excuse of returning Grace's possessions to Grace's brother-in-law, the Marquis of Parnell, to persuade him to take her and her sisters under his wing. She is certain that Parnell has a crush on her, so who knows, maybe she can secure financial security for herself as well as her sisters in more ways than one. But to do so, she has to travel all the way to the Scottish highlands, and the road is fraught with dangers. How appropriate therefore that someone sends a rose to the abbey along with a note asking for one of the men to take care of Kate. Kit MacNeill, back in Scotland after a military sojourn in India, answers the summon.
Kit is drawn to Kate but the attraction is complicated by the disparity between their stations as well by the traitor in question plotting mayhem and complicating the already rocky road to romance. Also, Kate is very determined not to be poor anymore, and Kit is hardly the kind of man to buy her a mansion in London. Don't be fooled into thinking that this story is another morality tale on the virtues of selflessness - Ms Brockway takes painstaking care to flesh out Kate so well that Kate isn't absolutely in the wrong or in the right: she's human, that Kate, in that her views in life are shaped by her very realistic reactions to the circumstances she has fallen into. There are very few heroines where I can honestly say that I understand how they think, and Kate is one of these threatened species.
Unfortunately, she also has a tendency to irritate me early on the story when she keeps turning down Kit's aid even when it's clear that she will be singing Little Fall Of Rain to Kit soon if she does. Once she is ensconced in Parnell's home, she also becomes even more passive than she already is, and the denouement that involves her in a case of her being at the wrong place and the wrong time, complete with a totally out-of-place and self-absorbed speech from her that has both me and the villain befuddled. Yet at the same time, Kate's transformation from a determined but immature and out-of-her-depths young woman into a more mature (and, probably paradoxically, more idealistic) woman is very well-done. She's a fascinating character that is very difficult to lump under a single label.
Kit is also a wonderfully drawn character - a wounded knight in tarnished armor who, despite his most cynical posturings, ends up performing heroic gallantry in the name of love. On one hand, he becomes too caught up in being a victim of his past that he irritates me around the same time that Kate begins to irritate me. I'd say that the story falls into a rut soon after the characters reach Parnell's home. But for a long time, he is a beautifully done wounded hero who nonetheless doesn't whine or mope. He sometimes allows his past to define who he is, but he never lets it overwhelm his entire life until he can't see beyond his own nose.
Thankfully, the way the author resolves the denouement restore my love for those two characters. I'm not too pleased with the dollar ex machina resolution of the story, but I really adore the way the author puts Kate in a situation that mirrors that in which his father was caught in back in France, and Kate finally decides to do what she feels is right and lets go of her resentment of her father's abandonment of her family at the same time. This is just one of the many instances where the characters question the concept of sacrifice and nobility. Karen Ranney, so far the reigning queen of intelligent character introspectives and beautiful epiphanies, has better not rest her laurels so soon because Ms Brockway comes close to matching Ms Ranney's best when it comes to painstakingly and vividly drawn scenes of introspection.
One particularly memorable quiet scene between Kit and Kate is a discussion about stars that leads to Kate telling Kit about the legend of Andromeda and the sea monster. While not exactly subtle, this scene is beautifully done because it's a splendid example of how an author is always better off showing the reader instead of telling the reader outright. It doesn't take a genius to realize that Kate is talking about her own feelings of resentment for her father whom she believes cared more for being a hero than to live for his own family that needed him badly. When the conversation seamlessly flows into Kate's openly wondering why she has to be the strong person here and why her father left her in this situation because she hates feeling afraid and vulnerable, it's a beautifully done transition without the whole scene coming off as too staged. Because Kit and Kate obviously bond emotionally as well as physically, there's no doubt in my mind that this relationship isn't just based on lust. It's intense, this relationship, but it's dark, larger-than-life, yet so convincing and real. The only boo-boo is the scene on page 299. It's supposed to be a powerful scene, but I've seen that one before in that Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping.
I also enjoy the fact that the villains can be truly nasty yet at the same time coming off as human instead of grotesque cartoon characters.
This book nearly loses me once the characters reach the holdings of the Marquis of Parnell because the pace starts to slow down and the main characters begin to come off as hapless bystanders in a situation they cannot control. Also, the ending feels quite abrupt. I'd love to know how Parnell reacts to Kit and Kate deciding to get married, for example. I also would love to be given a little more insight into the relationship between Kate and Grace, and that between Grace and Parnell's ward Merry. These relationships are integral to the external conflict, but the scarcity of details and the abrupt manner the author brings up plot twists in her story cause the resolution of this external conflict to be very unsatisfying.
Also, I could do without the cutesy scenes of Kit and Kate's wedding. If the story ends with the rather haunting scene of the villain's death, without it being diluted by the next two chapters of floral bouquets and other cutesy fripperies - or maybe the author should have switched the order of the scenes around? - My Seduction could have ended in a more urgent and dramatic "ohmigosh, I must buy the next book now!" note, I think.
Still, the author's treatment of the concept of heroism and brotherhood of men, coupled with romantic and whimsical use of imagery like the rose garden, is very nicely done, although I confess that it's probably the part of me that enjoys the bombastic musicals and rock operas that responds favorably to the author's style here.
On the whole, this book is a much better character study than a road trip romance. To readers that prefer their stories to be driven by external conflicts and the characters not dwelling too much on every emotion they are feeling, My Seduction may not be their cup of tea. Also note that there are a few loose ends in this story that will be resolved in the next two books. For me though, while I don't think this book comes together as well as some of the author's books in the past, I enjoy this book nonetheless for the reasons I've stated. In fact, I find myself wanting to reread this book again as soon as I put it down. So here's one more book for my keeper shelf.
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