by Eloisa James, historical (2005)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-073210-5
This is not fair, this is playing dirty. Eloisa James cannot do this to me. She's really not playing nice now. If she wants me to eat my words and give a book of hers a keeper grade, fine, I can do that. If she wants me to give two books of hers a keeper grade each, fine, I'll just swallow my pride and do just that. But... this! Two consecutive keeper grades? What does she want from me next? A white flag of surrender? The renaming of the keepers page to the Eloisa James Hall of Fabulously Fabulous Books? I knew it, that day she came up with that horrible book Potent Pleasures back in 1999 that was so bad that she might as well be naked in the pillory other than a sign around her neck that says "Pelt me with tomatoes please!", she's just setting up a trap so that she can make me look like a fool for her wily ways. She's a sneaky one, that Eloisa James.
Kiss Me, Annabel isn't an obvious example of fabulousness. It starts out pretty slow but before I know it, I'm been dragged right into the worlds of the Essex sisters and the men who love them, once again, without me knowing what or how that happened. Readers who aren't fond of unlikeable female characters may have problems with the heroine's sister Imogen who is as much a central character in this story as the heroine Annabel Essex herself and therefore there is no escaping Imogen at all in the story. However, I personally adore Imogen. I'll explain when I get to her later on. But first, the plot.
Like the previous book Much Ado About You, Kiss Me, Annabel features an ensemble cast instead of merely the hero and the heroine with peripheral secondary characters so I strongly suggest anyone new to the series to start with the previous book first. At any rate, do read the review of the previous book at least because that review contains background information on how the Essex sisters end up in London and about the men who will play major roles in their lives and loves.
In this story, Annabel, the second oldest sister, fought many battles with her late father when he was alive over the issue of money. His father didn't care if the roof fell down and killed everyone in the crumbling house as long as he could maintain his famous stable of racehorses and Annabel naturally begged to differ. Today, Annabel has one ambition in life: she wants to marry a rich man so that she will never have to worry about money ever again. I've seen some readers go "Eeeuw!" about how "mercenary" Annabel is but speaking for myself, I find her reason for wanting to marry into money most real and in fact, it speaks volumes to me of Annabel's personality that she recognizes the importance of money in one's lives and she's not ashamed to want plenty of it. If you want any more reason as to why I adore Annabel, here's what she tells her husband, Ewan Poley, in page 247:
"Ewan Poley, if you think I'm some sort of self-sacrificing hymn-singer who's going to follow you all over creation while you tend to savages, you should think again!"
Annabel isn't going to win the Albert Schweitzer medallion for pious missionary charity and political correctness anytime soon but... bless you, Annabel. God bless you for daring to admit that you want to have a good life instead of playing the role of a self-sacrificing hymn-singer. Also, if you're alert, you may have noticed that the quote is taken from page 247. Yes, Annabel's not going to change into an "Hallelujah, money isn't everything! Give me love and I'll gladly sleep on the streets!" nitwit anytime soon. In fact, Ewan who at first patronizingly tells her that money isn't everything ends up being the one who starts to think that gee, maybe moneyed people do have it better so he'd better count his blessings instead.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before they are married, Annabel is in London, her debut being sponsored by her sister Tess who had married one of the wealthiest merchants in London in the previous book. Her sister Imogen, who lost her husband in the previous book - seriously, if you have to go, "Who? What?", do me a favor and read the previous book, and it is a fabulous book as well if I may say so myself - causes some unfortunate complications where Annabel ends up hopelessly compromised with the last man she has in mind for a potential husband: Ewan Poley the Earl of Ardmore. He's Scottish, after all, which means he may have lands and all but like his peers in Scotland, he has not much money and Annabel is afraid of being poor. Also, Ewan maintains a stable of racehorses despite his financial situation, and Annabel understandably fears that she is marrying a man who is too similar to her father. But as Ewan and Annabel journey from London to his castle in Scotland and encounter some amusing adventures along the way, they will realize that they are better suited than they initially realized.
Ewan is actually a pretty flat character: he actually starts out one-dimensionally perfect in the sense that he wants to save Imogen from herself and what-not. Fortunately, as the story progresses, the author allows him to exhibit some slight thick-headed mulishness and an "I think I'm right!" tendency although these tendencies are squashed by the end of the story so he's perfect again. Annabel is a better-written character since her fears and insecurities about being poor again are very nicely done without making Annabel completely wrong or completely unpleasant in the process. She comes off like a very realistic and likable person who understandably has to spent years trying to scrape every single penny to feed everyone and herself so she wants some money for a change. Make no mistake, Annabel can be and is kind in this story - but she goes about being kind the right way without going great lengths to attain stigmata. Also, I like Annabel's sense of awareness (with one notable exception) of the things going on around her.
The sole exception is probably a concession to the Avon formula since pretty much every historical romance from Avon has this development. I'm talking about the heroine's bizarre insistence that the hero doesn't love her even when his actions speak otherwise just because he doesn't say the three magic words. In the case of Annabel, this recalcitrant insistence is not at all in character since in many other things she displays a keen sense of awareness and a level head on her shoulders. This "He doesn't love me! He doesn't!" development towards the end of the story is supremely annoying and I deliberately deduct a few points from the final rating of this book as a result, hmmph.
In other aspects, Annabel and Ewan come together like a dream. Their relationship is obviously patterned as a counterpart to William Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew: while Annabel is not a shrew, she holds many beliefs similar to Katharina Minola when it comes to love, money, and life and therefore this story can be subversively feminist in how Ewan comes to accept and even agree with some of Annabel's way of looking at life. What I really love about their relationship is how eeriely accurate the way Ms James has these two arguing and generally behaving like happily long-married husband and wife even before they consummate their relationship, so those two come to compromises, make up after an argument, and pretty much communicate with each other so well by the end of the story that a potential big misunderstanding is very nicely averted by a heartfelt conversation between those two, initiated by Ewan who has the biggest excuse to play the big misunderstanding card in that situation. That is very nicely done indeed, Ms James. Issues like differences in religious perspectives (he worships God, she believes in the power of the pound) aren't neatly solved at the end of the day so there will always be some conflicts in that relationship, but Ms James has Ewan and Annabel treating each other with respect (without the heroine having to submit completely to the hero's philosophy or principles because Ewan respects and loves Annabel enough to let her be her own person) as well as affection that I'm sold on these characters' happily-ever-after.
The second major storyline in this story is Imogen's downward spiral of grief and something more complicated which is halted by an unexpected source of comfort: Garret, the Earl of Mayne. There is nothing sexual about the relationship between Imogen and Garret, more like mutual dislike as they are thrust into each other's company that eventually blossoms into something much more complicated and harder to define as they each catalyzes self-searching and self-discovery in the other person. Imogen is beautifully written here: oh, I really love how Ms Jones initially presents Imogen as a selfish creature only to slowly draws out layers after layers of complicated facets to Imogen's self-destructive personality. Is Imogen likeable? To some, maybe many, readers I'd suspect not but I do find her likeable. In fact, she pretty much steals every scene she is in to the point that she and Mayne with their two-person Antiheroism Anonymous sessions eclipse Annabel and Ewan in the second half of the story. Imogen is a beautiful disaster in every way but she is smart enough to accept a few wake-up calls when they come her way. Her rapport with Mayne is simultaneously hilarious since they are so acerbic towards each other and poignant at the same time when they quietly realize that the other person is accurately correct about their flaws and issues. That's the beauty of this relationship: both parties torment and heal each other at the same time. It's not as if Imogen is the only person who needs to see the light here, Mayne does as well. Imogen and Mayne provide the emotional drama that is always there underneath their antagonistic rapport in this story to balance the lighter tone of the relationship between Annabel and Ewan.
Ultimately, Kiss Me, Annabel works very well on me because I find the characters and the emotions they are feeling real enough to resonate with me. Nothing in this book is as simple as they may appear to be at first. Even the funniest scene can contain some underlying bittersweet elements, such as Annabel's introduction to Ewan's family and friends, who could have been stereotypical wacky Scots were not for the horrifying event that befell one of them in the past and the way Ms James apply some heartbreaking realism - let's say that this isn't a Catherine Anderson novel - to that particular subplot. As a result, I find this book so much like Imogen. It's easy to initially assume that this will be another frothy romantic comedy typical of Avon historical romances, but I can always peel away layers after layers in this story to find something amusing, something heartbreaking, and something that is a little of both.
So there you go, how that sneaky Ms James has me battered black and blue all over with her arsenal of tricks. I'm not down for the count yet though so I demand a rematch. When is the next book coming out?
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