I’m a list-keeper by nature, but one list I hate to have to add things to is the one called “Great Ideas, Terrible Execution.”
Nothing frustrates me more than a romance novel with a fascinating premise that just falls flat, unless it’s one with characters that have been sorely wasted on the story they’ve been given.
I’ve recently had reason to add a sub-list to this list: “Secondary Characters Who Deserved Better.” Or, in the case of two back-to-back reads, “Secondary Romances More Interesting Than the Primary Love Interests.”
Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of secondary romances, especially in Traditional Regencies, where page counts are stingy enough without depriving the romantic leads of more time together. But the secondary romance is tricky in any genre — it’s got to somehow further the plot of the book as a whole and be compelling enough that readers are not tempted to skip those pages just to get back to the primary couple.
The secondary romance should not, surely, make you wish you could do away with the two leads altogether, but I’ve just read two Traditional Regencies that featured secondary romances that were the only reasons I finished the books.
In the first, A Change of Heart by Candice Hern, the primary romance is between fortune hunter Jack Raeburn, Marquess of Pemerton, and Lady Mary Haviland, a wealthy heiress who’s decided on a life of spinsterhood after a terrible childhood at the hands of her father. It’s a fine story, but nothing to write home about.
I found the secondary romance between Lady Mary’s paid companion, Olivia, and Jack’s uncle Edward, a middle-aged rake, to be far more intriguing than Mary and Jack’s romance. Olivia is a widow who still thinks often — and fondly — about her husband, while Edward is the mold Jack cast himself in when embarking upon a life of whoring, gambling and gallivanting.
Unfortunately Olivia and Edward are given far too little page time for theirs to develop into an unforgettable story, but I found myself thinking about these two when I should have been paying more attention to Mary and Jack. Paid companions and rakes are both thick on the ground in Traditional Regencies, but rarely do we get a paid companion who’s not downtrodden nobility and/or quite new to the profession (i.e., she’s not forced to work long before she’s rescued by the hero). Nor do you often see a rake who hasn’t been reformed before or shortly after the age of thirty.
Now imagine the possibilities: a rake who is past his prime, perhaps tiring of his libertine existence, falling for an attractive lady’s companion of a certain age. This eliminates so many of the tropes we’ve come to associate with the reformed rake — needs to marry to secure the succession, is forced into marriage because he’s compromised some young debutante, or, my favorite (and one that appears with alarming frequency in Traditional Regencies), the Daddy Long-Legs scenario where the rake just this side of thirty ends up as guardian to a girl in her first season, and that somehow ends in marriage. And now we have a much more interesting character and scenario: a rake who chooses to reform to be worthy of someone of lower social status than he.
And what about our paid companion? Think of all the alternate histories she could have, when she no longer has to be either nobility or married off to the hero before she turns 25 or so. Maybe she’s the illegitimate child of a family member of the lady who employs her. Maybe she, like Olivia, is a widow, but followed the drum and lost her husband in the war. Or maybe she’s secretly writing witty observations about the activities of the ton from an outsider’s perspective that are selling like hotcakes — especially the things she writes about our hero, the rake — but has to keep her newfound fortune hidden if she wants to continue as a lady’s companion and therefore maintain access to the ton.
I had hardly recovered from all the adventures I was imagining for Olivia and Edward when I started Polly and the Prince by Carola Dunn. In this book, the primary romance is between the titular Polly, an absent-minded artist of gentle-though-not-noble birth and Kolya, a Russian prince who’s been exiled by the tsar.
All that’s worse than a book that leaves you thinking about “could haves” and “should haves” for two secondary characters is a book that totally destroys whatever goodwill you might have felt toward the two main characters by showing them so poorly next to the secondary characters. Thus is the case with Polly and the Prince.
Polly and the Prince comes off as a comedy of errors — not for the plot, but for all the chances to make a great book that Dunn let pass her by. This might be the first book I’ve ever read that would mishandle a dozen plot lines that would have made much better stories. Dunn introduces wonderful ideas, like Kolya’s father risking the tsar’s wrath to get money to him, Kolya’s finding a place in the Prince’s household at Brighton and a plot to bomb Prinny’s pavilion in Brighton, but dismisses them in a few sentences or lets them fizzle. Instead we get Kolya bumming around the country speaking broken English and basically mooching off his friends, while Polly is doing well to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Kolya and Polly’s shortcomings only become that much more obvious when Dunn introduces the secondary romance between Polly’s brother, Will, a steward to a duke, and Lady Sylvia, a widow who commissions Polly to paint portraits of her daughters.
Reading Will and Sylvia’s story is almost like reading another book entirely. You expect the primary romance to be all angst and gravitas, while the secondary romance serves as a lighthearted diversion, but not so here — Will establishes himself early on as the long-suffering older brother who’s tasked with providing for his mother, sister and brother, while Sylvia has secluded herself and her two daughters far from her disapproving family. There are also hints that Sylvia’s husband was abusive.
The more you see of Will and Sylvia, the less you want to see of Kolya and Polly, and the worst part is, you begin to suspect that Dunn felt the same way. The scenes between Will and Sylvia — and even Sylvia’s almost plot-moppety daughters — are far more touching and believable than those between Polly and Kolya. Most of their page time comes toward the end of the book, where things should be heading toward a climax for Polly and Kolya. Instead, the action swings back to Will and Sylvia, breaking whatever (little) tension there was for Polly and Kolya.
As though it were not enough that the stakes somehow seem higher for Will and Sylvia already, Dunn lets both Kolya and Will save the day in key scenes, but Will’s scene — and its resolution — totally steals the thunder from Kolya’s, by virtue of being, again, more touching and believable.
But it gets worse! Turns out that Polly and the Prince is one of a series of books, which makes Dunn’s decision to tie up Will and Sylvia’s romance by the end of the book completely mystifying. As it stands, their romance was so rushed that without a few key scenes, it could have picked up seamlessly in the next book.
When I think of the opportunities Dunn missed to expand on all the themes that made Will and Sylvia’s relationship so intriguing, I want to throw my Kindle across the room. Dedicated family man meets woman estranged from family, noble, wealthy lady falls for land steward, Sylvia learning to trust again after her disastrous marriage, Will becoming a stepfather… I could go on and on.
All that considered, my opinion of secondary romances has not changed. If anything I’m more frustrated than before, but at least I have a page full of additions to my “great ideas that need to be addressed” list.
It may be time to write that Traditional Regency already.
A Change of Heart
by: Candice Hern
Signet 1995/Self-Published Ebook/Paperback 2012
Polly and the Prince
by Carola Dunn
Thorndike Press 2005/ Belgrave House-Regency Reads 2010
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