by Eloisa James, historical (2010)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-162684-5
While reading A Kiss At Midnight, I have to resist the urge to check the cover again and again to reassure myself that this book is written by Eloisa James, not Christina Dodd. I'm not accusing Ms James of plagiarizing Ms Dodd in any way, let me make this clear, it's just that this book feels very much like a typical historical romance by Ms Dodd, what with its arrogant hero who is overtly made into a butt monkey by feminist secondary characters, plenty of subversive "love makes fools of us, but men for some reason become even bigger fools" and "the bigger these men are, the harder and farther they fall - thunk!" sentiments, and a royal theme that will fit in well with those of Ms Dodd's books that featured princes and princesses from made-believe kingdoms.
This is a spin on the Cinderella fable, but when it comes to the heroine Kate Daltry, the movie Ever After got there first. Kate is relegated to being a servant by her stepmother after her father died and left everything to this woman. She is passionate about defending the servants and the tenants from her stepmother's capricious whims, naturally. The only reason she stays with her stepmother and her stepsister is because she wants to ensure that these servants and tenants don't get mistreated too much.
Meanwhile, Kate's kind-hearted if rather simple-minded stepsister Victoria finds herself three months pregnant. Victoria's beau Algernon Bennett, the Lord Dimsdale, is more than happy to marry her, but he will lose a good portion of his inheritance, thanks to his father's will, should he marry before the age of 30 without his mother's approval. Both Algie and Victoria are 18, by the way. Back to Algie, his mother will only approve of Victoria if Algie's uncle, Prince Gabriel Albrecht-Frederick William von Aschenberg of Warl-Marburg-Baalsfeld, approves of the whole thing first. Due to some plot that I'd rather not get into because it's... ugh, Kate finds herself pretending to Victoria as she and Algie visit the Prince in his castle in Lincolnshire.
Gabriel is forced to rusticate in Lincolnshire because his elder brother, the ruler of Marburg, has decided to banish all who don't fit his idea of a religious person from his court. Thus, Gabriel finds himself surrounded by family members, hangers-on, and some animals from his brother's zoo after the great banishment. He'd rather be digging for old stuff in some archeological site, so he's waiting for his Russian bride-to-be to arrive so that he can marry her for her money and then dash off to do his thing. When he knows Kate better, however, his plans get a little more complicated.
A Kiss At Midnight is a fun and frothy read, and some folks out there may be pleased to know that this one isn't saddled with numerous secondary characters setting the foundation for their own books. As far as Cinderella remakes go, this one isn't too unpredictable: there is a fairy godmother who is exactly as I'd expect her to be, for example. While the element of freshness or originality that was found in many of the author's previous books is missing here, the comedy still works very well, the love scenes are erotic, and there is some emotional drama late in the story that rings real.
But I feel that eventually the book stops being a romance and instead becomes more of a biting commentary about stubborn men and their silly ways. Gabriel is a pretty disagreeable fellow from start, but he's set up to fail - there is nowhere for such a ridiculously arrogant man to go but down. His dilemma in this story arises from his determination to marry his Russian Fleece, as he calls her, while at the same time he keeps stringing Kate along. It's not fair to both Kate and Tatiana, and trust me, the author knows about this as she has the godmother character making some brutal but honest assessment about the whole situation to Kate. Kate becomes a fool for love here, eventually steered by her godmother from humiliating herself even more in her situation with Gabriel, so I find it hard to root for a couple in a story where the secondary character is the only sensible person.
This is why I often find myself comparing this book to a typical book by Christina Dodd. Like some of Ms Dodd's books, A Kiss At Midnight is as much a romance as it is a cynical look at how people can be fools for love or, to be more specific, how women can become absolute fools for arrogant men who don't deserve them and how ridiculous these men can be in their self-absorbed posturing.
At the end of the day, A Kiss At Midnight is a very readable story with humor and some turbulent feelings flying off the pages. The cynicism underneath the humor can be a little too thick toward the later parts of the story, however, making both the main characters come off like fools. As much as I enjoy reading this book, I find myself wondering why I'd even want these twits to have a happy ending by the last page. Believe it or not, I find that Victoria and Algie make a sweeter and more romantic couple than these two by that point.
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