The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor is next on my RITA-Reading Challenge, since two of its three novellas were nominated for Best Romance Novella. However, I can safely say that after reading all three stories, if anything in this world is fair than Courtney Milan and "This Wicked Gift" should have nothing to worry about.
All three stories revolve around an incredibly unorthodox family, kind of like a Regency-era Brady Bunch. Leo, Annalise and Charlotte Fitzmanning, the children of the Duke of Manning and his mistress of twenty years, were raised at Welbourne manor along with the Duke's legitimate sons Nicholas and Stephen, as well as Justine - another of the Duke's by-blows by an earlier mistress. Naturally, they all boast scandalous reputations.
And, because these stories don't take place in Regency England but rather a cotton-candy, Care-Bears facsimile of Regency England, their household is loving and wild and oh-so-delightfully-improper.
"Justine and the Noble Viscount," by Diane Gaston
The Chick: Justine Savard. The product of the Duke's affair with an earlier mistress, she's given herself the responsibility of raising and teaching the wild Fitzmanning siblings, and it's up to her to smooth the ruffled feathers when Viscount Brenner arrives with devastating news.
The Rub: Despite her growing affection for the viscount, thanks to some impulsive decisions in her past she can never marry.
Dream Casting: Gemma Arterton.
The Dude: Gerald "Gerry" Brenner, Viscount Brenner. Brenner is saddened when he hears the news that the mother he hasn't seen since he was ten has recently died, but confounded when he discovers her will makes him guardian of the illegitimate siblings he's never met.
The Rub: While Welbourne manor wakes him out of his cold, grieving stupor, can he really learn to love the family his mother chose over him?
Dream Casting: Lee Pace.
Fitzmannings: Look at us! We're wacky! And unconventional!
Brenner: Ahem. Sorry to inform you, but your parents are dead.
Fitzmannings: Look at us - we're emo! And brooding! But still very unconventional!
Brenner: Ahem, yes, well.
Justine: I'm somewhat less wacky! And more conventional! But at least I'm not related to you by blood!
Brenner: Let's get married!
Romance Convention Checklist
5 Unruly Siblings
2 Maternal Snubs
1 Very Bad Parent
1 Idealized (But Still Very Bad) Parent
The Word: As the first novella out of the gate, "Justine and the Noble Viscount" doesn't make a very good impression. As it turns out, while the Duke of Manning and his mistress had three children over their 20 year relationship, both also had children from their previous marriages. The Duke's legitimate sons were raised with the Fitzmannings, but his mistress left behind a 10-year-old son when she left her Earl husband to live with the Duke.
At the beginning of this novella, we learn the Duke finally married his beloved mistress, only for the two of them to die of a fever four months into their wedding trip. Viscount Brenner, the new Duchess' estranged son, is appalled to discover that he's been made guardian of the Fitzmannings and the bearer of the bad tidings. Brenner would rather have nothing to do with the family his mother chose over him, but his cold, autocratic father raised him to respect his duties.
When he arrives at Welbourne Manor, he is disconcerted by the casual, loosey-goosey wallpaper-historical household, but the quiet and practical presence of Justine (a earlier by-blow of the Duke) helps him adjust.
Now, this story started out really interesting - the situation promised plenty of drama and, at least initially, the Fitzmannings and their parents aren't sugar-coated. The Mannings were loving but careless parents, and the Fitzmannings are spoiled and selfish, if good-natured. However, this novella worked like a stick of gum - tasty at first, it just grew blander and blander as time went on and the story decided to make an abysmally contrived effort to justify what was essentially child abandonment.
Brenner hasn't seen his mother since he was ten years old, but of course, we learn that his Bad Old Dad hid his mother's letters and wouldn't let her visit him so of course, his mother was a Saintly Thwarted Parent and his Bad Old Dad is a Selfish, One-Dimensional Stooge. I'm sorry, but writing letters to and visiting are not the same as raising a child. Within the context of the story it's painfully clear that yes, Brenner's mother did choose her lover over her own son and lived pretty happily without him, barring the occasional wistful sigh. If the novella had focused on Brenner's acceptance of his mother's decisions while still growing to love his half-siblings, this could have been a rich and original story. Instead, we get force-fed the usual Free-Spirited Mama Just Wanted to Be Freeee Drivel. I guess one reader's "spirited" is another reader's "selfish."
Also, other plot threads are given dreadfully short shrift thanks to the novella's length. Justine's past is barely sketched out, leaving a lot of details missing, which is a poor choice when she's the titular character of the story. Also, I hate to say this, but the relationship between Justine and Brenner seemed just a tad on the incestuous side. While they aren't technically related by blood, they both share a load of half-siblings so it did seem a little squicky.
"Annalise and the Scandalous Rake," by Deb Marlowe (RITA-Nominated)
The Chick: Annalise Fitzmanning. The artist of the family, she prefers painting by herself to society parties, but when her half-brother Brenner offers to provide her works with a proper showing in return for attending a house party, she accepts.
The Rub: While some guests (particularly Mr. Milford) are friendly, can the shy, illegitimate daughter of flamboyant parents ever have a future in society?
Dream Casting: Camilla Belle.
The Dude: Ned Milford. A secret caricaturist of all of the ton's misdeeds, when Ned is given an invitation to the infamous Welbourne Manor, he thinks he's hit the jackpot.
The Rub: The daughter of the manor turns out to be the girl of his dreams - so what will happen if she finds out his secret?Dream Casting: Rupert Evans.
Brenner: Hey! Welbourne Manor's holding a party! Free art showings and shenanigans!
Annalise: I'm in!
Ned: I'm in!
Annalise: Oh, this was a mistake. No one understands me and my ART!
Ned: Oh, this was a mistake. I'm in love with that weird artsy chick!
Unscrupulous Publisher: Extra! Extra! Never-before-seen prints of Fitzmanning Shenanigans!
Annalise: *gasp!* You LIAR! I shall immortalize your perfidy with ART! *does*
Ned: But I'm innocent!
Annalise: *gasp!* I BELIEVE YOU! Let's get married!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Cynical Cartoonist
1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
1 Hidden Necklace
1 Damning Portrait
The Word: The timeline jumps forward a few months and deals with Annalise, the elder Fitzmanning girl. Despite her infamously larger-than-life parents, Annalise is shy and spends most of her time painting in her private studio. Refreshingly, Annalise is only too aware of her shaky standing in society and doesn't want to bother with the social rigmarole. However, her concerned half-brother Brenner convinces her to give it a go at an upcoming house party, and in return, he'll fund an official showing of her paintings.
Meanwhile, seemingly-regular gentleman Ned Milford is delighted to receive an invitation to the Welbourne house party. Unbeknownst to the peerage, he has spent the last several years wickedly lampooning the ton as the infamous caricaturist Prattle. With the Fitzmannings' wild reputations, this houseparty promises to inspire enough caricatures to pay Ned's bills for a good long while.
Ned and Annalise almost immediately experience a shared connection thanks to their love of art, and while Ned helps Annalise to become more bold, her unique take on life shakes him out of his cynical stupor. However, the social ridicule of the Fitzmannings (and Ned's participation in it) remains the big elephant in the room.
While easily the best novella of the bunch, Deb Marlowe's contribution still seems a bit truncated and oversimplified. The ending came along a little too fast and it seemed like Annalise and Ned overcame their biggest obstacle too quickly.B-
"Charlotte and the Wicked Lord," by Amanda McCabe (RITA-Nominated)
The Chick: Charlotte Fitzmanning. She's secretly been in love with her brothers' best friend, Andrew Bassington, for years.
The Rub: However, she thinks he's searching the market for a proper, respectable wife - something she most definitely isn't.Dream Casting: Michelle Trachtenberg.
The Dude: Lord Andrew "Drew" Bassington. He used to be fun and fancy free, but now that his solemn, rigidly proper brother's dead, he needs to be the responsible one.
The Rub: He loves Charlotte, but his family is way too boring and staid for her wild spirit.Dream Casting: Brandon Routh.
Charlotte: Woe! I love Drew Bassington but I'm too Feisty and High-Spirited!
Drew: Woe! I love Charlotte but I have to be too Boring and Responsible!
Charlotte: Let's have sex anyway!
Drew: Okay! Screw it, I love you! Let's get married!
Charlotte: No! It'll ruin your political chances!
Drew: ... WTF? You're a moron.
Charlotte's Brothers: Let's convince you with a poorly-written theatrical metaphor!
Charlotte: Okay, I'll marry you.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Broody Stick-in-the-Mud
1 Sad Widow
2 Naughty Dogs
2 Matchmaking Brothers
The Word: Naturally, following the best story of the bunch, we now get the worst. Charlotte Fitzmanning, three-time winner of the Most Annoying Character in the Novella Award, is in love with Drew and has been for many years. Unbeknownst to her, Andrew is in love with her, too. However, to stretch the paper-thin story to fit novella-length, both characters are required to make a Big Effin' Deal about pretty small and easily conquered problems.
Andrew used to be the carefree BFF to the (Fitz)Manning bros, but when his older, respectable brother died, leaving behind a widow and young son, Andrew took it upon himself to be the man of the house. Because of this, Drew believes his fun-loving Welbourne Manor days are over, and that his newly solemn and dignified lifestyle would only crush the fiery spirit of poor Charlotte.
Charlotte, meanwhile, believes that Drew deserves a sophisticated political hostess of a wife, and after a half-hearted attempt to become such, she gives up in favour of mooning over the Love That Can Never Be, an infinitely more productive endeavour.
The rest of the novella proceeds in this fashion, as Drew and Charlotte brood over small obstacles blown way out of proportion instead of actually doing anything, to the point where Charlotte's brothers have to perform creepier and creepier feats of mischief in order to get them together. I'm sorry, but in what universe would two 19th-century gentlemen choose to lock their virgin sister alone in a summerhouse along with their randy best friend whose skirt-chasing antics are well known to them? What do they think is going to happen?
What's even worse is that instead of spending page time on developing the actual central romance, the author also sets up two secondary romances (Lady Emily and Nicholas, Lord Amesby and Lady Derrington) and then doesn't finish them. What the hell? So instead of getting one solid, well-focused romance, we get two half-baked subplots and a rushed, simplified, and contrived central romance written in such generalized, cliched romance language that it's practically meaningless.C-
So I think it's safe to say that I wasn't impressed by The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor. It's no use giving your characters an unorthodox and colourful parentage if the characters themselves get colourless, cliched stories. Best to leave these Diamonds in the rough.