by Kathryn Smith, historical (2003)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-052741-2
For The First Time drives me nuts because it could have been so, so good. The hero Devlin Ryland starts off as just perfect. The heroine Blythe Christian is a little childish at times, but she is strong and passionate - just perfect. Their courtship takes my breath away. I love it! And then, as the story progresses, I become more and more annoyed with these two until at one point I would cheerfully see them drown in the Thames. So what happened?
The story first. Blythe Christian thought she was in love with Rowan Carmichael, the Earl of Carnover, and he even told her to wait for him when he went off to fight Napoleon. Carny came home with a wife he met on his wartime sojourn. Devlin Ryland was the soldier that saved Carny and took Carny to a healer, Teresa, whom Carny eventually fell in love with and married. Naturally, Carny and Devlin become good buddies. Carny is also good buddy with Miles (the hero of Elusive Passion) and Miles happens to be Blythe's brother. It's an uncomfortable time for all concerned when Carny drops by Miles' country home for some R&R.
For Dev, it's love at first sight when he sees Blythe in tomboy outfit. She's six feet tall and he's taller, so heightwise, they are a perfect match. But for Dev, I don't know how to describe it, but the way he falls head over heels with Blythe really takes my breath away. His developing relationship with Blythe is like a truly romantic waltz. Dev is just perfect in how he accepts everything about Blythe.
It also helps that the main characters are very likeable. Dev reminds me of a Carla Kelly hero (and nobody writes great heroes like Carla Kelly, if I may say so myself) - he is a working class fellow made good and he oozes nobility from his gallantry and actions to more than make up for what he lacks in pedigree. I also love how Blythe is an intelligent heroine whose emotions are real. She is no one-dimensional virtuous brown cow running around to save the world. I especially love how she is capable of feeling desires even if she doesn't run around acting on them, and the author seems to hint early in the story that Blythe isn't a stranger to masturbation. All these elements in Blythe won't endear her to readers that prefer brown cow Virtue Pikachus running around the place saving absent-minded daddy from himself, but they make Blythe come off as very real to me.
Two very vividly-written characters in a truly romantic courtship. The secondary characters are just as vividly portrayed and there is great depths in characterization. The emotions running through the story are complicated and hence wonderful. So what went wrong?
The problem here is Ms Smith's overplaying her main characters' insecurities. This is her biggest mistake and one that drives this story almost straight to the ground. Dev's incessant guilt over his wartime antics and hence his feeling of unworthiness get old really fast. Ditto Blythe's refusal to accept that Dev loves her just because he can't say the three magic words. Blythe has a plausible motivation for her recalcitrance (see Carny above) for maybe four chapters, but when Dev has done more than enough to prove that he cares for her, it makes me want to choke them all and yell at them to get over themselves when they keep whipping themselves (and each other) over their nonsense. How could two well-written otherwise intelligent people be so blind, deaf, and dumb to the other person? Self-absorbed is one thing, but almost the entire book of circular psychobabbling and self-flaggellation is just too much for me to take. Blythe's insistence that Dev can't love her unless he knows what love is and then tells him the three words (or something like that, only more convoluted - her arguments are too tortuous to be summed up in one sentence) even when he's done everything and more a Prince Charming will take the trouble to do - that makes her look incredibly stupid. Dev's constant guilt-ridden whinings about his self-esteem? Get over it, please. By the end of the book, these two have exhausted and irritated me with their actions. Who do they think they are, anyway? Some overwrought poet?
For The First Time examplifies one weakness in Kathryn Smith's writing: taken apart scene by scene, For The First Time is heavenly magic in so many places. Ms Smith manages to convey Dev and Blythe's developing attraction to each other in a manner akin to sweet and romantic love songs. There are some really beautiful passages here that are worth rereading because of their exquisite romantic quality. But, if For The First Time is considered as one whole story, it is an annoying story riddled with contrived reasons as to why this story has to drag on for so long.
Still, despite being irritated by the book at the end of the book, I still harbor some fondness for For The First Time. It's like a very unpolished and badly flawed book that has so much potential. There are so many times when I am reading this book that I can't help feeling that if Ms Smith manages to get her act a little tighter and deliver a consistently good story, she can make readers that are looking for romance novels with complex characters very happy. Do I recommend this book? Yes I do, if for no other reason than to allow readers to make their own decision whether to keep this author on their radar. In today's volatile touch-and-go environment in the publishing industry, I hope this author will be given the opportunity to polish up her raw edges and deliver a knock-'em-dead book - For The First Time makes me feel really impatient to read that book.
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