WARNING: SERIOUS SPOILERS AHEAD. This novel has a pretty significant twist that smacked me right in the face. It's a well-developed surprise that really contributed to my overall enjoyment of this novel. However, I can't really go into my traditional in-depth review without spoiling the hell out of it. THIS IS A SPOILER THAT MIGHT BE WORTH BEING SURPRISED ABOUT IF YOU'RE THINKING ABOUT READING THE NOVEL. I gave the novel a B. It has really enjoyable moments and, as I previously mentioned, a hella good twist, but is marred by some creepy and implausible moments towards the end. Just a warning. If you've already read the book, don't care, or, in Ana from The Book Smugglers' case, hate it "with the force of a thousand hurricanes," by all means read on. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Alternate Title: Tale as Old as Time, Song as Old as Rhyme, Beauty and the Emotionally-Stunted Blind Man
The Chick: "Samantha Wickersham." This prim nurse with her dowdy clothes, "homely" spectacles, and dull auburn hair beats out, well, no candidates to land the job of nurse to the Earl of Sheffield, a social paragon turned shabby recluse thanks to the loss of his sight. Hey, at least the pay is good!
The Rub: Her charge is a hostile, self-pitying ass, the servants are wimps, and even the Earl's own family would rather have nothing to do with him. Hey, at least he's hot!
Dream Casting: Cranford's Lisa Dillon.
The Dude: Gabriel Fairchild, Earl of Sheffield. Gabriel led a charmed life - he had a loving family, great looks, money, fame, popularity - but it wasn't enough to charm the one girl he wanted.
The Rub: To prove to his crush that his love was true and his rakehell ways were over, he joined the Royal Navy to impress her. However, once he was blinded and scarred in battle, his fiancee dumped him.
Dream Casting: Simon Baker.
Samantha: Hey, I'm here about the job posting...
Beckwith, Gabriel's Butler: YOU'RE HIRED!
Gabriel: Grr! I will not be treated like a child! *smashes things* You are a poo-poo-head nurse and I want you to go away!
Samantha: Fine, I quit!
Gabriel: Wait! *trips on table, slashes throat on broken porcelain*
Samantha: Oh no! What a fool I was! I'll stay!
Gabriel: Heh heh heh, works every time...
Samantha: Here, let's try and get you to adapt to being blind...
Gabriel: *bonked on head* I CAN SEE!
Samantha: Exit stage left! *flees*
Gabriel: I need to find her!
Investigators: Okay, what does she look like?
Gabriel: Er, about that...
Samantha: *Holy Shit Secret Identity Revealed!*
Gabriel: What. THE. HELL. *brief pause* Let's get married!
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Self-Pitying Cripple
1 Dowdy Nurse With a Secret Past
1 Noticeable But Still Sexy Facial Scar
2 Horny Servants
SEVERAL (intentional?) Beauty and the Beast References
1 Packet of Gooey Love Letters
1 Relationship-Aiding Pet
1 Faithless Fiancee
1 Sight-Depriving Head Injury
1 Sight-Restoring Head Injury
1 HOLY SHIT Secret Identity
The Word: This novel really surprised me. I mean really. I wasn't expecting to like it that much, although I still wanted to read it, because I've always been somewhat interested in stories with handicapped but still sexy heroes. Also, this novel set up a lot of expectations only to smash them to pieces and overall I enjoyed how the author played with my assumptions. However, this was by no means a perfect novel.
The novel begins routinely enough. Samantha Wickersham arrives at the country estate of the Earl of Sheffield to apply for a job as a nurse. The Earl, recently blinded and scarred in the Napoleonic wars, has frightened off every last one of his previous caretakers, and his family and loving staff are desperate for a replacement. Any replacement.
Gabriel Fairchild, Earl of Sheffield, just wants to be alone. For most of his life, he had the world on a string. He could have had any woman he wanted - but the only woman he wanted he couldn't have. He fell for Cecily March, a pretty young baronet's daughter who distrusted his declarations of affection because of his pampered rakehell reputation. Desperate to win her heart, he started a secret correspondence of rather embarrassingly purple love letters with her (the saccharine excerpts of which open each chapter in the novel). Finally, she said that if he could prove he was more than a coddled golden boy, she would marry him. Exultant, he joined the Royal Navy (a more democratic military branch than the Army) to prove his worth - only to end up sightless in a hospital, listening to his fiancee's pattering footsteps as she fled the hospital, never to return.
Six months later, he still hasn't really adjusted to being blind. Whenever he moves about his house, he's always crashing into things and smashing furniture and knocking things over. He eats with his hands like an animal because he cuts himself on cutlery he can't see. Most of the time he just stays in his room and mopes about the golden life he once had and the fiancee who deserted him. Meanwhile, his weenie staff of enablers keep the house dark and dusty and don't even bother to move furniture out of his way because he's strictly ordered them to leave the house exactly as it was before his injury.
Samantha, upon entering into her position, takes one look at the situation and goes "Oh, HELL NAW." While the servants are afraid to go against the master's orders, since Samantha's technically on Gabriel's father's payroll, Gabriel has no authority over her and she can piss him off however she likes so long as she does her job. With efficiency and pluck, she immediately starts countermanding all of his orders and provoking him into changing his self-pitying routine.
Gabriel violently resents Samantha's intrusion into his life and reacts accordingly. For the next few chapters, Samantha and Gabriel bicker and rant at each other in the expected fashion. Samantha thinks Gabriel's an arrogant prick, Gabriel thinks Samantha's a dried-up prude, etc. etc. Gabriel doesn't want to change his routine because he has no intention of living out his years as a blind man - he still hopes his condition is reversible. The relationship with Gabriel and Samantha really picks up once he's informed that his blindness is most likely permanent, and Samantha has to show him that life still has much to offer, once he learns to adapt and change to his current circumstances.
Now, while nothing in the plot precisely bothered me, a lot it of seemed familiar. Almost too familiar. Does any of this ring a bell?
-The hero is rude and smashes furniture in a rage
-The hero eats with his hands and has to relearn how to use a fork and knife
-The heroine chides the hero more for his bad temper than his marred looks
-The heroine reads to the hero
-The wimpy servants continually go "What would the master say?" and think there's no point in cleaning the house when there are no guests ("Life is so unnerving,/ For a servant who's not serving./ He's not whole, without a soul to wait upon...")
-The heroine (in a light yellow "buttercream" gown) and the hero (in "a deep blue cutaway tail coat") waltz alone in a massive ballroom. Seriously, is no one reminded of THIS:
I mean, really. I know that the archetypal Beauty and the Beast fairy tale (which in turn is an adaptation of the Cupid and Psyche story from Greek mythology) is a common basis for romance novels, and permits any number of interesting permutations, but I have to say I have never encountered a romance novel that reminded me so constantly and particularly of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast film by Walt Disney. And this is a movie I haven't seen for about a year (damn you, Disney vault!), and the comparisons still spring up.
Disney references aside, I still enjoyed the story up until this point. Gabriel swallows a great deal of pride and learns how to avoid obstacles with a cane and a dog. Samantha gets the warm and fuzzies for Gabriel. Gabriel's family shows up, and thanks to some nice character development the awkwardness between Gabriel and the Fairchilds feels realistic, with understandable reasons on both sides as to why they can't all get along as if nothing's happened.
However, the story takes a sharp turn after Gabriel takes a blow to the head while rescuing Samantha from a burning building (don't ask), and starts responding to light and shadow. When doctors reveal the blow dislodged a blood clot and his sight will eventually return in time, he proposes to Samantha. Samantha smiles, acts very happy, shares a night of torrid lovemaking with him, and then flees for the hills, knowing their relationship can never be.
Know why? You've been warned about spoilers so there's time to turn back now.
It's because, as it turns out - "Samantha Wickersham" is none other than Cecily Samantha March, Gabriel's faithless fiancee! OMG! WTF! BBQ! Okay, okay, so there were hints throughout the book, and other readers may have figured it out beforehand, but I didn't, and boy was it a kick in the teeth! It was one of those surprises that made me want to skim the book over again to catch clues and hints, and made me see most of "Samantha"'s actions throughout the novel in an intriguing new light.
When Cecily fled that hospital upon seeing Gabriel blind and scarred, it wasn't out of repulsion, but out of terrible guilt for being such a selfish twit and demanding feats of bravery from him. Hearing rumours of his reclusive existence, she disguised herself as Samantha Wickersham and made herself a servant to atone for the injuries she did to him. Knowing Gabriel might recognize her and subsequently despise her once his sight fully returns, she skips town and returns to her existence as Cecily (whose family thinks she has just returned from a European tour).
The revelation of her true identity creates such a paradigm shift. Samantha seems like a bit of a martyr at the beginning of the book, with her determination to do all the shitwork since the servants refuse and her equally insistent defence of Gabriel's heroism and self-worth - but knowing her now as Cecily, it makes perfect sense. Also, Samantha's concern with her awkward glasses, dowdy clothes, and dull hair seems like by-the-book "unconventional beauty issues" of a less-than-supermodel-gorgeous heroine - but really, she's actually rather pretty under her disguise but frightened of being recognized for who she really is. While her secret identity took me by surprise, on a second read (er, skimming) of the book, her character still remains consistent.
And yes, while I see how Gabriel's recovery of his sight seems a little contrived, in this instance it creates a truly original conflict - he's in love with Samantha and wants to marry her, but has no idea what she looks like. Meanwhile, at a ball he recognizes Cecily and acts coolly towards her, because he has no idea that she's Samantha. In his head, he has two different ideas of the "women" he loved, never guessing they're the same person. His memories of loving Cecily are strongly visual - he remembers her blonde hair, her beautiful eyes, her coyly worded letters and girlish handwriting. His relationship with Cecily was mainly long-distance, because it was secret. His memories of Samantha, however, are sensual - he remembers the lemon scent of her perfume, the feel of her skin. Their relationship was close, intimate, and developed with touch and sound. I never found it unrealistic that Gabriel couldn't immediately peg Cecily and Samantha as one and the same.
However, just as I thought the story couldn't get more interesting (and just as I was getting really excited for when Gabriel finally founds out the truth), we get the scene.
Yes. The scene. The one scene that lowers this book's grade by an entire letter. WHY do these terrible scenes of badness have to come at the end of a book? It's like buying what you think is the perfect dress at a vintage shop only to discover a small burn mark on the back hem - everything else about the dress is good, except for this one flaw that suddenly makes the dress not fit for company anymore.
The egregious badness of this scene is terrible due to three factors: 1) It cheapens the characters involved, 2) it's implausible, and 3) it's entirely pointless to the narrative.
This scene occurs after Cecily discovers that Gabriel, his sight fully recovered, is re-enlisting in the Navy to fight Napoleon for a second time. Oh noes! She thinks. He's going to get himself hurt again! So what does she do? She shows up on his doorstep wearing a cloak with little else underneath. She flaunts her goodies and says "yes" to his long-ago proposal of marriage. Gabriel has a good laugh and says he doesn't love her and won't marry her and his heart belongs to Samantha, but he'll set up her as a mistress and give her presents if she puts out. She does. Gabriel falls asleep. Cecily leaves.
Let's start with problem #1 of this creepfest, shall we? I was under the impression when this scene began that Cecily would try and dissuade Gabriel from re-entering the Navy. Nope - it turns out she just wants to get her jollies while she still can. She essentially seduces Gabriel and encourages him to cheat on Samantha with her. Gabriel, in turn, despite saying that he loves Samantha and his heart isn't available anymore, nevertheless bangs her because she's sexy. This makes no sense to either character.
Samantha spent the better (in every sense of the word) part of this novel demonstrating how she's atoning for being selfish and thoughtless - but this is precisely what her actions in this scene are. She doesn't reveal herself, she doesn't try to convince Gabriel not to throw his life away, there's absolutely nothing that Gabriel gets out of having sex with Cecily, so really, it's all about her.
Similarly, Gabriel's spent the last 300 pages thinking Cecily is thoughtless and selfish and shallow (adding to the whole twisty mindfuck is the fact that Samantha corroborated this), and yet all she has to do is get naked and he can't keep his hands off her. So, even though he's promised his heart to Samantha and even though he considers Cecily a scheming chit and all-round lesser human being he's still willing to sleep with her because she's right there, right now. What the hell does that say about Gabriel's character? I read that scene and immediately consider Gabriel to be cheating on Samantha.
Yes yes yes I KNOW that Cecily and Samantha are the same person but that's not the point - the point is that Gabriel believes they are two people, so his actions and corresponding thought processes are the same as if he was actually cheating on Samantha. ICK x 1000!
#2: Secondly, Gabriel and Cecily get it on for an entire night without Gabriel ever even suspecting that she's really Samantha. During the whole loathsome exchange, Cecily demands that Gabriel keep the lights on and his eyes open (oh, and not to kiss her!), thinking that will somehow keep him from realizing that Cecily feels the same, smells the same, reacts the same, has the exact same body as Samantha. I did not buy this for a second. Samantha was the love of Gabriel's freakin' life and the night of lovemaking they shared was seared into every pore of his body (according to the author), so either his penis has the memory of a goldfish or Teresa Medeiros needed a PLOT DEVICE.
#3: Gabriel wakes up from his little tryst and goes on with his life - his plans unchanged. Nothing about the novel's conclusion is in any way determined or affected by this scene. This is what really killed me and why this dragged the book down to such an extent for me - because not only was this scene implausible and cheap, but it couldn't even provide a reason for why it needed to be in the novel in the first place.
Okay, so in hindsight I can sort of determine its purpose - Gabriel is essentially in love with a woman who doesn't exist, so I suppose the author had to prove to us that the prospect of Cecily naked doesn't make Gabriel's genitals try to crawl back up into his abdominal cavity, in order to make it more realistic that he willingly welcomes Cecily back with open arms once he discovers the truth.
At least, I think that's what that scene was for. Either way, it failed, and that's a shame, because the rest of this book was pretty interesting until this weird little sex scene came and made both protagonists look really sleazy. I honestly think if I ripped the pages out and just read the book without that scene, I'd enjoy the book a lot more and lose nothing of the story.