Beauty Like The Night
Beauty Like the Night wins the Henry James Award for Endless, Redundant Internal Musing. It starts out delightfully enough with a witty narrative voice reminiscent of Heyer or Chase. It ends on the same charming, neo-classical note. In between, though, it sags under the weight of its own non-story, and no amount of engaging prose can help.
The book tells the well-worn tale of young, star-crossed love and second chances. Camden Rutledge and Helene Middleton meet and fall in love as adolescents when Helene’s mother, a flighty French widow became the lover of Camden’s father, a dissolute rake. The romance was doomed to failure, natch. Fast-forward twelve years or so: Camden is now a widower, with a mute child traumatized by her mother’s death. And, coincidence of coincidences, Helene has become a special-ed governess of sorts, so by a twist of fate the two star-crossed lovers are reunited.
The rest of the book is devoted to almost every standard romance-novel plot contrivance and cliché you can imagine. Camden and Helene part because of a parent-generated Big Misunderstanding, a la Judith McNaught, and these feelings of anguish, hurt and doubt go on. And on. And ooooon. Camden is also informally engaged to his cousin, and his never-ending lust for Helene conflicts with his overdeveloped sense of duty. There’s Bentley, the rakehell younger brother, who throws a few monkey wrenches into the romance because he’s determined to rebel against Camden. And there’s a relatively pointless suspense side-plot involving Camden’s wife’s death with a standard and easy-to-spot villain.
At 419 pages, Beauty Like the Night is far too long. About 100 pages could easily have been trimmed from it. Much of the book is consumed by endlessly repetitive internal monologue. It didn’t advance the story, and it made the characters seem wishy-washy. Camden in particular irritated me. By the end of the book, I didn’t feel any kind of emotion toward him except mild boredom. He loves Helene; he doesn’t love Helene. He trusts her; he doesn’t trust her. He desires her; he is disgusted by his desire. The only constants are Camden’s turgid state whenever he’s around Helene and his bad temper (partially caused by said turgid state, partially caused by the ghosts of his dissolute father and codependent mother). Given his bad humor, his constant cooing and coddling of his daughter strikes a false note.
Helene is a much more likable and consistent character. She seems like a very warm person, although her indecisiveness towards Camden drove me batty now and then. At times, she also struck me as a little too good to be true. She’s understanding, smart, beautiful, and kind to children and small animals.
The supporting characters seem to come straight from Central Casting. The child, Ariane, is suitably scarred yet adorable, a regular little angel. Bentley is the typical irresponsible, slightly spoilt younger son with the heart of gold. The servants are an appropriate mixture of deference and wackiness. Joan, the Other Woman, is a suitable non-entity. None of them is offensively bad, but they’re all very predictable. In fact, the whole book is very predictable.
Despite all these flaws, Carlyle is a good, if occasionally inconsistent, prose stylist. The first few chapters are delightful, and they pull this novel out of the D-grade morass pretty much single-handedly. If the prose cadence and spirit of the first few pages could have been sustained throughout the book, it would have been a Heyer-worthy romp with some sex thrown in. As it stands, however, even the admittedly hot sex feels rather worn and commonplace.
All told, the psychoanalysis that goes on seems far too modern and American, the characters remain two-dimensional tortured stereotypes despite all their soul-searching, and the plot has far too much filler and not enough substance. I wish I could’ve liked this book more, but finishing it was too much of a chore. I have hopes for this author, though, and I’ll probably keep an eye out for her future releases.