Monday, April 06, 2009

"Almost Heaven," by Judith McNaught

Alternate Title: Um, Actually the Original Title Just About Does It.
The Chick: Elizabeth Cameron, Countess of Havenhurst. When she embarked upon her first Season, her beauty and lineage gave her an excellent chance of marrying well, paying off her debts, and saving her ancestral home from the auction block. However, a fated meeting with handsome, but untrustworthy gambler Ian Thornton left her ruined. A year and a half later, she's managed to save her estate (barely) through severe economical compromise, but her miserly uncle threatens to cut off his financial support unless she agrees to meet with the suitors he's found for her.
The Rub: One of those suitors is none other than Ian Thornton, the man responsible for her tarnished reputation.
Dream Casting: Kristen Bell.

The Dude: Ian Thornton, Marquess of Kensington. A year ago, he fell in love with a beautiful woman and recklessly proposed marriage to her - only to find out she was already engaged, with a trigger-happy brother to boot. Convinced she was just a shameless flirt, he bid good riddance to bad rubbish.
The Rub: Thanks to a mistakenly sent invitation, Elizabeth Cameron winds up on his doorstep. Unaware of her circumstances, Ian has no idea why this supposedly wealthy, titled, and spoiled little hussy is so desperate to stay.
Dream Casting: Brandon Routh.

The Plot:

Elizabeth's Uncle: I've found you some suitors, girl. Try to impress them or I'll cut you off!

Elizabeth: WHAT? But one of these suitors is Ian Thornton!

Flashback to a Year Ago...
Elizabeth: Oh, hi, my name is...

Ian: Marry me!

Elizabeth: Wait, what?

Elizabeth's Brother Robert: Unhand her, you fiend!

Elizabeth: *ruined*

Back to the Present

Elizabeth: Well, crap. Hi Ian, it's been a while!

Ian: What the hell? Why is this supposedly wealthy, spoiled brat in need of my help? She has everything!

Ian's Uncle: Um ... until you ruined her life.

Ian: Oh .... Awkward. Marry me now?

Elizabeth: Okay.

Elizabeth's Brother: Psst! Your husband's secretly an evil, evil dude and we need a last-minute climax! Run away with me!

Ian: *SHUN* I want a divorce!

Elizabeth: No you don't.

Ian: Oh alright, I don't. I am so whipped.

Elizabeth: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Rakish Hero of Uncertain Lineage

1 Soiled Dove Heroine

Several Big Misunderstandings

1 Ne'er-Do-Well Brother

1 Ruined Reputation

1 Hostile Butler

1 Scandalous Murder Trial

The Word: This book languished for quite a while on the bottom of my TBR pile - not for any particular reason, but just because there were other books I wanted to read first. I'd heard a great deal about how good Judith McNaught's books were, however, so whenever I came across other books of hers at bookstores with their beautiful covers, I was very tempted to break one of my cardinal book buying rules - which is, never buy more than one book by an author I haven't read yet. No matter how good I think a book will be, I'll never really know how good an author is until I actually read her stuff - and there's nothing worse to me than reading a truly hateful novel only to realize I'd jumped the gun and now have two more hateful novels on my TBR pile.

Well, as I mentioned before, I broke that rule with McNaught at the library book sale, but after reading Almost Heaven it seems I won't have to worry about negative repercussions and am now rather glad I already have another McNaught on my TBR pile (Something Wonderful).

Elizabeth Cameron, despite being an aristocrat of near-unparalleled beauty, lives a reclusive existence on her ancestral estate of Havenhurst. She lives on strict economy, with a reduced staff, and almost no furniture, but thanks to her cunning financial skills and bargaining techniques, she's kept her accounts out of the red. While she relies on her resentful and penny-pinching uncle's reluctant financial support, in two year's time she's set to inherit a small legacy that will truly allow her to support her estate on her own.

Trouble is, her uncle's patience is wearing thin, and without her knowledge, he contacts several of her former suitors offering a sizable dowry if they'll take her off his hands. When three men accept, Uncle Scrooge orders Elizabeth to visit each one of them, with every intention of handing her off to the man with the best offer. If Elizabeth refuses, he'll cut her off, and she'll lose her beloved home. Elizabeth's humiliation is only heightened by the fact that the third man on her uncle's list (next to an elderly perv and a shy but amiable hunting enthusiast) is none other than Ian Thornton, the man responsible for all of her troubles.

A year and a half ago, Elizabeth had the world at her feet. True, her estate was already heavily in debt thanks to her father and brother's gambling habits, but her exquisite face, social bearing, and ironclad bloodlines all but guaranteed her an advantageous match to the wealthy bachelor of her choosing. With no fewer than fifteen suitors vying for her hand (and one already on the cusp of signing the paperwork with her brother) her future seemed assured.

However, a chance meeting with Ian Thornton, a reckless and untitled gambler, destroyed everything. While they experienced an instant and powerful mutual attraction, Elizabeth was not the risk-taker that Ian was - Havenhurst depended on her, and living with her father and brother's debts understandably prejudiced her against gamblers. Unfortunately, the choice was taken out of her hands when a malicious prank delivered her into a compromising position with Thornton. With her reputation shattered, all offers dried up, her brother skipped town, and her family's creditors swooped in.

Two years later, after skillfully managing to deflect her first two suitors, Elizabeth lands on the doorstep of Ian's cozy Scottish cottage with a mixture of fury and confusion - she still has no idea why the ruiner of her life would accept an offer of marriage.

Ah, but there's the trouble - Ian didn't. An incompetent secretary sent an invitation by mistake and Ian is just as appalled and outraged to find Elizabeth in his home. Two years ago, Ian genuinely fell in love with her and proposed marriage, but when he obeyed a note supposedly written by her to meet him in a greenhouse, he discovered a) she was actually a countess (and out of his social sphere), b) that she was already engaged and c) that her brother really doesn't like him and prefers to solve problems with a well-aimed bullet.

Heartbroken, he threw himself into his work and subsequently remained oblivious to Elizabeth's changed circumstances. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is too proud to enlighten him upon that matter, and so the two circle each other warily, separated by several layers of misunderstanding and hurt but still bound by inexplicable attraction.

Ian believes Elizabeth invited him to that greenhouse all those years ago, and, still thinking she's wealthy and privileged, is convinced she's a scheming, pampered, manipulative little slut who probably had one affair too many which is why her uncle is pimping her out so enthusiastically. Elizabeth, meanwhile, thinks Ian invited her to the greenhouse because he's a heartless, deceitful libertine. Mistaking Ian's dilapidated hunting cottage as his actual residence, she still thinks he's poor, doubtless from all of his unwise gambling.

The greenhouse incident left each protagonist with a deep-seated belief in the other's black character, but their renewed proximity to each other continues to confound the beliefs they'd painstakingly concocted in order to soothe their own betrayed hearts. Elizabeth wants to believe Ian is a cruel, impoverished seducer because it makes her look like less of a fool and supports her reservations against marrying him two years ago. Similarly, Ian wants to believe Elizabeth is a manipulative, shameless, spoiled and promiscuous flirt because it pardons his own emotional vulnerability and weakness (he did propose marriage after knowing her for only a day, after all).

There wasn't a single aspect of this novel I completely disliked. Elizabeth occasionally irritated because she does tend to lose her shit without a lot of provocation, but otherwise she was an enjoyable and heartfelt character. Ian Thornton was yummy as well, but really all the characters had understandable foibles and well-developed motivations and flaws - even the novel's so-called villains. Although the plot revolves around the Main Misunderstanding that tore Ian and Elizabeth apart (that is, the forged note each supposedly received from the other), it was a misunderstanding that was supported by other concerns and character flaws, such as differences in status and financial obligations, that kept the plot from being instantaneously solved by the revelation that both parties were tricked.

All of the drama is this novel made sense and emerged realistically from the events of the narrative as well as the conflicting personalities of the characters. Refreshingly, neither of the protagonists suffered from Those Three Little Words syndrome - they were able to deduce the other's feelings from their actions and when they felt the same, they said so without any contrived hand wringing about emotional vulnerability or the belief that love doesn't exist.

The main emotional conflict between Elizabeth and Ian is their tendency, even after they admit their love for each other, to make sure all their bases are covered to protect themselves if the relationship goes south again. The greenhouse incident that forced their initial separation hurt them both very deeply, and even though they realize neither was to blame, neither wants to risk that pain again. They continue to secretly maintain insecurities, misgivings, and suspicions about the other as they openly enjoy each other's affection. As their relationship blossoms, they both build themselves emotional escape tunnels, without realizing they weaken and undermine the relationship itself. The events of the novel's climax eventually force the protagonists to understand that they cannot truly love a person while simultaneously maintaining an exit strategy. Ultimately, they have to wholeheartedly throw themselves into the other person's life, essentially making the ultimate gamble.

Thankfully, it pays off. Thank goodness Something Wonderful's now on my TBR pile.


  1. ... but thanks to her cunning financial skills and bargaining techniques, she's kept her accounts in the red

    I think you meant: out of the red.

    Judging from your summary, the novel's main conflict seems to be merely a misunderstanding about the greenhouse incident and that this conflict eventually is resolved by a belated but simple discussion.

    That discussion does not, however, repair his character faults of being an untrustworthy and reckless gambler who caused her impoverishment and who failed to act effectively to undo the harm he caused. That's the main conflict they should have addressed and resolved.

    At the end of the novel is he still a gambler? If not, then did she contribute to his reformation?

    From your summary, it seems to me that his main quality is that he has inherited enough money to help her maintain her own estate.

  2. Mike --> Ah - typo, thanks. I'll correct that.

    As for your argument - bear in mind that "Almost Heaven" is quite a long book, with a great deal of subplots and layers. The greenhouse incident was merely the inciting incident that set off the plot and affected the characters in a way that determined much of the rest of the story, but there were other conflicts and motivations involved. The review would have been much, MUCH longer if I'd gone into all of it.

    The greenhouse misunderstanding is actually resolved just shy of halfway through the book - it's just that the repercussions of the incident continued to shape the characters' decisions, which is the better way a Big Misunderstanding can be applied to a novel.

    Lots of romances use Big Misunderstandings in an incredibly hammy way - where it lasts the entire book and could be solved with just a single conversation and immediately solves all relationship problems. Not so here - again, the greenhouse prank was explained quite quickly. How it continued to affect the story is that both characters walked away from the greenhouse feeling incredibly betrayed - just because they found out someone had gulled them doesn't mean the pain of that experience is washed away. The novel's conflict after this incident deals with their inability to completely trust each other for fear of being hurt again.

    As for Ian's character faults - he's described at first as an untrustworthy and reckless gambler because that's how Elizabeth sees him at the beginning of the book, and she continues to suspect this of his character (again, it becomes an excuse later in the novel). The novel goes at greater lengths to explain this, and he does, eventually, undo the harm he caused. A lot of the conflict in that area comes from the fact that for a lot of the novel Ian was unaware of her changed circumstances - firstly, because he deliberately distanced himself from her and her social circle to protect himself, and secondly, because Elizabeth deliberately did not tell him because she was too proud. Once he does realize, he very quickly, effectively (and romantically!) sets things straight, believe me.

    On that note, however, I should go into greater length about how well-drawn the secondary characters are - yes, even though Ian does eventually make good, Elizabeth's friends, supporters, and servants don't suddenly forgive and welcome him. Quite realistically, there's still some resentment and suspicion that flavours a lot of their interactions.

    The novel eventually deals with the fact that he's more a risk-taker than a specific gambler. Again, a lot of what Elizabeth initially bases her view of Ian on is what she sees during a two-day garden party. He gambles occasionally and recklessly, but also strategically (he's apparently a math whiz who counts cards), but throughout most of the novel the term gambler is more applied to his mind-set of taking calculated risks rather than playing it safe all the time.

    As for inheriting money, he's rich all on his own - from speculation in stock exchange and from property sales. A lot of Elizabeth's belief in Ian's poverty comes from her own misplaced assumptions.

    Assumptions are another obstacle to Ian and Elizabeth's relationship - it's like another escape tunnel, where they jump to conclusions about another person in an attempt to be one step ahead of them to prevent themselves from being taken by surprise.

    Thank you for you interesting comment - again, this book was quite long and detailed, so I can't always include everything in the summary or description. I write my reviews more or less organically, and what usually ends up in the review are the aspects that inspired the strongest reaction from me. Sometimes that means a short review, sometimes a long.

    I do recommend giving the book a try if you are a romance fan.

  3. I love Big Misunderstandings when they're well written. And "never buy more than one book by an author I haven't read yet"? Excellent rule. I should start using it. The thing is if there's an author I haven't read yet but am pretty sure I'll like (Jo Goodman) I can't pass up her books at a 50 or 25 cent library sale! What if the one I pass up turns out to be a hard-to-find backlist title? :)

  4. I loved me some Judith McNaught back in the day but she's an author I'm kind of leery of trying again. Pretty much all of her books are based on The Big Misunderstanding and I've learned to be a lot less patient of it over the years. I'm not sure I'm ready to have my very fond memories torn assunder. My favourtie McNaught book was Once and Always.

  5. MaryK --> I've done that, too. Shh, don't tell - but I bought both "After the Kiss" and "Before the Scandal" by Suzanne Enoch without reading any of her stuff first!

    What I really hate is whether an author has a FABULOUS first book, so you buy her other ones, and they SUCK. I loved Sophia Nash's "A Dangerous Beauty" but "The Kiss" was such dreck that I could barely believe they were written by the same person. The excerpt from her newest book didn't impress me much either - WAY too florid.

    Kristie J --> Really? Hmmm...I'll be wary reading her books, then, but I already have "Something Wonderful" on my TBR. I was mainly thinking of reading her historicals as opposed to her contemporaries.

  6. I grew up reading McNaught, and I love her, flaws and all. I'm not so keen on her current contemps, not sure when (if) the next one will be released. But "Almost Heaven", along with "Something Wonderful" get to me everytime. And in the best possible way. What can I say, I refuse to take off my rose-colored glasses.

  7. Alum'149:12 AM

    I absolutely adore this novel. The emotional evolution of the protagonists, the heartfelt, angsty ending.... Could you recommend similar novels? I generally like Judith McNaught because she knows how to write a fairy tail romance like no other but manages to bring the hero down to his knees by the end. Would love to read novels with similar dynamics. Thanks!