A Woman's Innocence
If I had to use one word to describe A Woman’s Innocence, that word would be shallow. Shallow characterization, shallow historical detail, shallow plotting: this book has it all. It’s a paint-by-numbers job. I could hand this book to any reader as an example of why I’m currently so dissatisfied with the historical romance market.
Julia Reed has only just returned from a ten-year stay with her brother who served as a British general in India and Afghanistan. Almost immediately upon her return, however, she is arrested for treason. Someone leaked military secrets to the Russians which resulted in the ambush and massacre of thousands of British troops, and the authorities think it is she who perpetrated this treason.
English agent Sam Sherryngton doesn’t want to believe that Julia is a traitor, but with the evidence against her, he must do his duty to the crown and arrest her. Still, they have a history together, and he can’t help but poke around a bit further into the case. What he finds exonerates her. Unfortunately, the evidence comes from the mouth of a dying man, and Sam is taken for his murderer by local authorities. So Sam runs and then breaks Julia out of prison to join him in his search for proof that it is Julia’s brother who is the traitor. They disguise themselves as constables, and go to Julia’s home to interrogate the servants and look for clues.
Back at the ranch, so to speak, old feelings and old conflicts emerge. Julia has always admired Sam, and vice versa, but his role as gardener’s son on her family’s estate made it impossible for him to approach her or relate to her in any other way than as a servant. However, now he is the one in charge and calling the shots. And Julia, who is likely gallows bait if they fail to incriminate Lewis, feels she has little to lose. Except her heart.
I chose to review this book because I imagined that a plot about a man defending a suspected traitoress might be interesting – especially if he were unsure of her innocence. However, Julia’s innocence is established very early on in the book, so any potential conflict for Sam between heart and conscience is eliminated quickly. What’s left is a mishmash of conflicts – the undeveloped childhood crush, the class difference between Our Lovers, family betrayal – all developing on the road, between a spy and a supposedly experienced heroine. I could add this book to any number of AAR’s Special Title Listings if it were any good.
The problem is, both Julia and Sam are only token characters; their supposedly complex personalities have no depth to them. Julia has had two lovers, but she reads just like any other Naturally Sensuous Historical virgin. She has little awareness of her body and isn’t particularly sexual. It’s not terribly clear why she even bothered to have affairs. Sam is supposed to be a spy, but he’s clear as glass. Callen tells us how great an undercover agent he is without bothering to show it. Julia has just returned from ten years in the East, but she has no culture shock. Her views of the world and of England appear not to have changed. She doesn’t crave Indian food or note how different English life is from what she has been used to or even complain about the colder weather.
Strangely enough, considering this is the third book in the Spies and Lovers trilogy, Callen has Sam ruminate broodingly about his soldier/spy past, calling into question everything he did during that period of his life. This sort of self doubt might have been appropriate as a main conflict, but as it is, tacked on near the end, it feels more than false. And also kind of wimpy.
Callen’s writing isn’t terrible, although there are overwrought descriptions such as “He had the kind of black, flat eyes that the darkest of evil deep inside…” and sentences like, “They stared at each other with a lifetime of incomprehensibility.” Head-hopping also occurs throughout.
The book’s biggest problems occur toward the end of the story. The differences in class between Sam and Julia are brought up again and again during Sam and Julia’s stay at the manor, by both of them and by his family. And then, at the book’s conclusion, everything is swept under the rug in a most unbelievable fashion and in a way that almost guarantees in-law problems for all the years to come. The economic dependence Sam’s family had on Julia’s family estate is too complicated for this type of super happy resolution.
Finally there’s the unbelievable wrap-up of the treason plot. The rationale offered up is so anachronistic it insulted my intelligence. Callen follows that with an appearance by a fairy godmother-like government agent who ties up any remaining loose ends and a sickeningly sweet epilogue in which all the “Spies and Lovers” of the trilogy appear with their pregnant wives and/or new babies. It’s enough to give any reader a toothache.
A Woman’s Innocence reads like a rather large collection of romance novel clichés. There’s nothing new or original here to recommend and a great deal to dislike. I’d pass on this one.