Uncommon Vows
by Mary Jo Putney, historical (2003, reissue)
Signet, $7.50, ISBN 0-451-21068-9


Everyone has a book that she knows she should love but doesn't, I'm sure. One of mine is Mary Jo Putney's Uncommon Vows. This medieval romance has all the elements that should appeal to me: a classic screwed-up premise, a strong heroine, and an uniquely messed-up hero. But at the end of the day, this story is still too light to appeal to me - it's like walking into a gourmet restaurant only to be served fried chicken that tastes just like something Colonel Sanders cooks up at quarter the price. Most of my dissatisfaction lies in Ms Putney's heavy-handed and saccharine way of resolving the story.

But first, the story. Meriel de Vere is young novice whose dreams hint that she is not cut out to be a nun. She first meets our hero Adrian de Lancey when he and his men are busy fighting off an ambush and is taken with his prowess. They meet again six years later when Meriel is now living with her brother. She goes falcon hunting only to lose her falcon and in her search for her lost birdie, she stumbles instead upon Adrian's hunting party. Adrian mistakes her for a peasant and so taken with lust is he that I don't think he will even listen to reason. Grasping on a flimsiest of reason, he captures her, holds her captive in his castle, and tries all he can to get her to be his mistress.

Adrian is an unusual hero in that he is supposed to be a priest until his brothers were killed and he is called to inherit his father's title and the responsibilities that come with the title. He abhors violence but is too dutiful to shirk away from his newfound responsibilities, so you can imagine that this is one very unhappy man. Meriel causes all his pent-up emotions to burst forth and he can barely recognize who he has turned into at the end of the day. While this is a captive story, Adrian is never physically abusive to Meriel. But he isn't above using psychological coercion. Meriel, to her credit, never gives in one whit. That is, until comes a plot twist in the story that in the hands of another author may make me groan in disgust, but it still works very well here.

That is, until the story descends into a too-sweet haze of sugary schmaltz moments and peacecakes soon after this plot twist happens. The story never truly recovers from this, especially not when the final confrontation between Meriel and Adrian has these two sprouting exchanges that make me feel like an audience member during the taping of the latest Oprah Winfrey show. I am quite disappointed by this because Uncommon Vows starts out as a gripping character study of Adrian de Lancey (Meriel is a more straightforward and rather one-dimensional "I need to be free and independent" type whose main function is to drive Adrian crazy) but somehow mutates into Ms Putney's talkshow about love, peace, understanding, and forgiveness.

The approach to the subject of forgiveness in this book is not as bad as that in, say, Dearly Beloved where the whole love and understanding thing is taken to new heights of ridiculousness when the heroine in that story actually considers her rape by her hero by the end of the story as not-that-bad because he was so hurt and tortured by his Evil Slut Mother; since they are together at the end, it's the cue for some happy music to play. But it's still bad enough, the resolution of Uncommon Vows, because the message is too simplistic and maybe even too optimistic to the point that it reduces all semblance of grey in this story into a black and white matter. The author ends up treating the theme of forgiveness in a too-flippant manner, like a rushed summary of the need for love and understanding by Oprah's guest shrink when time is running out and they need to wrap up the show ASAP.

Because I find the author's treatment of redemption too sweet as well as too simplistic in a talk-show style where everything is okay after a group hug at the end of the day, Uncommon Vows fails to work me with on the same level as, say, some of the really good Anne Stuart romances in the early 1990s. For example, I love how Nicholas Blackthorne is an amoral rake that ends up changing for the better despite his "best" intentions because of love. There are all sorts of shades of grey in Nicholas Blackthorne that captivate me because the author isn't afraid to let Nicholas be wicked and even cruel. On the other hand, Ms Putney's approach to redemption is too heavy-handed that unlike A Rose At Midnight, say, Uncommon Vows feels like a preach tract instead of a subversive and wicked tale of redemption and love. At the end of the day, my head may tell me that this book is well-written and very readable but my heart remains unmoved.

Rating: 74


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