by Virginia Henley, historical (2003)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21064-6
The best way to described this overly padded, overly romanticized tale loosely based on famed 18th century beauty and socialite Elizabeth Gunning's life is that it is a soap opera. It is best treated as one. It's not that this book isn't a romance novel - it is, it's just that Undone is an old-school romance where the hero and the heroine spend some time apart as the heroine comes of age or something. In this case, Undone is also a singularly dull tale starring two really self-absorbed and dim-witted characters that I have flashbacks to dull and unbelievable stupid heroines of soap operas like General Hospital and the sociopathic "heroes" that love them.
Virginia Henley chooses the make John Campbell, the future Duke of Argyll, the hero of this story. Elizabeth and her sister Maria are daughters of a disinherited son of a nobleman and an actress. Bridget Gunning, their mother, is an ambitious woman that wants her daughters to have successful careers on stage, the career that she lost when she did a really stupid thing and married her useless good-for-nothing husband. Because Maria is the most beautiful, Bridget favors her over Beth. But that doesn't stop Ms Henley from having everyone else in the book fawning over Beth while calling Maria everything from stupid to shallow to slutty. No wonder Maria is bitter. So would I, if I try so hard to be beautiful so that I can marry a rich man and be happy ever after only to lose out to a dim-witted wretch of sister who, of all the nerves, wails and whines that she doesn't want the attention or the love of everybody in this book. No, I don't have sister issues, thanks for asking, but this book is making me experience these issues vicariously and it's doing it very well indeed.
Beth is sixteen when she encounters John by the river near her home, and John, being what apologists will call a "historically accurate asshole" tries to make a move on her when he realizes that she's a nobody and hence fair game. This of course causes Beth to writhe at night and dream of John, because nobody shows love like a man that wants to use you. Shades of General Hospital here. Heck, later on, their first love scene is dodgy, in the grand tradition of legendary soap opera lovers, because John loses control and plunges through the dam, so to speak, when all wants to do is to rub his perverted old snake against the wall of the dam. And she's seventeen! Pervert! Shall I call them Luke and Laura?
Anyway, the dam-breaching scene takes later in the story and I am getting ahead of myself. Where was I? Oh yes, one day Bridget decides to introduce her daughters to an old stage friend and one thing leads to another, with Beth and Maria being invited to the party of the Viceroy of Ireland under the pretense of being the daughters of the Viscount of Mayo. They pull it off so successfully that Bridget is inspired to forsake her dreams of seeing her daughters on stage and bring the family straight to London where she will parade her daughters as genteel ladies in hope of them landing a titled and wealthy husband.
Here is where things get ugly. While Maria smartly waits for the highest bidder to sample her wares, our dim-witted Beth is giving away her milk for free to John in their illicit rendezvouses, all the while Beth waiting breathlessly for him to propose. Of course he is not proposing - he has a bigger fish to fry, so to speak. James, the Duke of Hamilton, eventually marries Beth, but Beth is pregnant with John's child. (If you have problems differentiating John and James, just remember: John is Beth's, uh, john, only this john doesn't have to pay a single cent. James is the husband.) Just when Beth manages to pass off the child as James' heir, John comes back into Beth's life.
This book makes a very interesting read when the author is detailing what are ironically filler scenes. The descriptions of the ballroom intrigues, the fashions, the glimpses of the lives of the Georgian upper class - Ms Henley manages to add these interesting elements into her story very well. But the main characters!
Let me say that I really dislike both John Campbell and Beth Gunning. Beth is dull - she has no character development and she is written as the loveliest, smartest, hottest woman ever but in reality, she's also a selfish idiot that treats her husband James like crap. James hits her more than once in this book but it says a lot that I feel that she deserves the smack he gives her. She spends her marriage pining for John who doesn't want to do the right thing by her while treating James really badly, and it never occurs to her that she is doing her husband a serious wrong by passing off someone's kid as his. Instead, she spends her time wailing that she wants to marry for love and she wants John and James sucks because she doesn't love him. It is very difficult for me to be patient with this immature teenage brat. John's stock plummets to a complete zero long ago when he seduces Beth and keeps her hanging on on his own ease and convenience, but he just has to return and ruin someone's marriage just because he can't keep his pants fastened when it comes to a woman he left and is now married to someone else.
And then later in the story Beth has the nerve to act horrified when she learns that James is not faithful to her. Predictably, the author demonizes James with glee, but she has her priorities all wrong. Just demonizing James alone cannot redeem the two imbeciles that are John and Beth. John treats Beth pretty badly, it's like following a married man casually using a gullible teenage girl he is having an affair with on the side. Beth is utterly pathetic in how she keeps pining for John even when John has shown that he doesn't want her, to the point that she wrongs other people trapped in her mess. Love is no excuse to act like childish idiots committing selfish actions in the name of physical gratification - okay, maybe it is, but there is surely no excuse to pass off this behavior as something noble and romantic.
Maybe if I am a naive teenage girl that gets breathless over the idea of pining for some totally disagreeable jerk that sleeps with me, doesn't call afterwards, and shows up only when he wants some because ooh, he sleeps with me so he must love me or some other nonsensical whims teenage girls can delude themselves into believing to justify their silliness, I will enjoy this book better. As it is, I'm older and wiser now, I don't find melodramatic rantings of foolish dolts in love romantic in any way, and I sure as well as can recognize a jerk when I come across one, and John Campbell is a jerk and Beth is the idiot he loves for her gullibility. My only consolation is that according to history, John will die twelve years after they get married. Beth will probably stop eating and start pulling out her hair and crying all the time to live miserably ever after, because she's really pathetic that way.
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