Saturday, August 30, 2008

Once and Always by Judith McNaught *****

Once and Always is a sort of classic story in romance - the young, virginal heroine with a spine of steel who has lost her parents; the older, jaded, experienced, wounded alpha hero, thought by the ton to be an abusive and fearsome man; the marriage of convenience and its ensuing conflicts before true love is found and expressed.

In this case, the heroine is Victoria, an American girl born around 1800, raised by her English mother and Irish physician father in New York with a younger sister. The parents were wed in haste and left the British Isles for America as the rebellious result of Victoria's mother not being allowed to marry her true love, a distant British cousin who married instead for wealth and position. Apparently, although the parents were friends, they never became true lovers and Victoria learned from her father how devastating it was not to have love in a marriage.

Victoria is in love with her American neighbor, Andrew, who is 5 years her elder at age 23. Andrew's mother is, well, unpleasant and given to hypochondria to get her way - and she doesn't like Victoria. She sends Andrew on a short Grand Tour to test their budding relationship, and shortly after he leaves, Victoria's parents are killed in an accident. Victoria and the sister are bundled off to England to the only relatives anyone can locate - a great grandmother and the same distant cousin as above, Charles, neither of whom even knew of the existence of the girls.

Charles, now a duke, lost his wife to illness some years ago, and the only heir he has is a bastard born of a liaison with a French woman who handed over the boy and disappeared. He gave the child to his brother and sister-in-law - they were missionaries in India, and he didn't keep up with his "nephew" - Jason, our hero - until he was an adult. Jason is now the heir to the duchy, and in addition is wealthy in his own right, the "how" of which is part of the story to be revealed later in the book.

Jason's life was further complicated by a marriage which produced an heir and a hatred for women, because the wife only wanted his money and title, and after giving him an heir, proceeded to cuckold him all over and spread rumors about his treatment of her. She takes the boy with her on a trip - they are lost at sea - and now, we have a truly wounded hero.

So now we have a wounded heroine, orphaned and left by her true love, going to live with the wounded hero and his father, her only relatives who will take her in. And while Charles is fascinated by her because she looks so much like his long lost love, her mother, Jason is angry and unreasonable - well, maybe rightly so, because Charles, impetuous romantic, has posted a notice in the paper that the 2 are betrothed - before she even arrives! (don't even bother thinking about the sister, because she's such a minor part in this story as to only waste ink)

First, Victoria and Jason must keep up appearances to avoid the gossip of the ton - they must pretend to be betrothed, but put out the word that maybe it won't happen, so that another suitable husband can be found. Victoria wants to hold out for Andrew to come and rescue her, but has received a letter from Andrew's mother revealing that Andrew has chosen a new bride and married her while abroad. Then Charles uses his own poor health to blackmail the two into actually marrying before he dies (ah, a lesson he must have learned from Andrew's mother!), which they do, reluctantly.

Well - sort of reluctantly. Now is where McNaught uses her Misunderstandings to create the tension. In one scene, Jason brings up the subject of virginity. After all, he is extremely experienced and even maintains a paramour - even after the wedding, the bastard! Victoria, unsure of the ramifications of his questioning, and being thoroughly American, misunderstands where he is going with this train of thought, and just demurs "I'm sorry" - meaning she's sorry he even brought up the subject she knows so little about. Of course, Jason assumes she means she's sorry that Andrew already took her virginity so she won't have that to offer... See what I mean? It isn't that they aren't communicating, it's that they are jumping to wrong conclusions about what is being discussed. By referring to her being thoroughly American, by the way, I mean that she is not schooled in the ways of British peerage and culture, and how things are done. What lessons she is given are full of misinformation and lies.

Now in a marriage of convenience, the two must learn to get along, to share, and to communicate - and it takes the hands of several outsiders interfering to reach this point, including all the gossipy servants, a female best friend, Jason's mentor, Charles and even the mean old great grandmother (whose change of heart I found really confusing).

The story did all the things I love in a romance - it made me feel joy when they were communicating and happy, and sad and jealous when he went to his paramour (the bastard!) and the confusion when she is confronted with conflicting information and emotions. For that alone, I give it 5 stars but not really keeper/re-read status. Oh - it's also on the AAR Top 100 list, so check it off.


Cindy W said...

I enjoyed this one, not as much as some of the others, but had to read it.

Favorite Scene- when Jason is confessing in his drunken stupor (and remembers!)

aunt rowena said...

yeah that is a great scene - Jason was a great hero!