Susan Wiggs’s books have received mostly positive reviews from other reviewers at AAR, and I myself enjoyed another of her American historicals, The Charm School. So I was quite surprised by how intensely I disliked her newest book, Enchanted Afternoon.
The book is a mess with a plot that spreads all over the place. The basic premise is this: Helena Cabot Barnes is Troy Barnes’s unhappy, abused wife. Troy is a senator, and they have been married for nine years. Prior to marrying Troy, Helena had a brief fling with unconventional, on the fringe Michael Rowan, an illegitimate boy who overcame his back alley upbringing to become a scientist and an inventor. When Helena became pregnant, she didn’t marry Michael, refusing to trap him with a baby. Instead, she roped in Troy, who was the ambitious son of a local carbonated water baron. She passed off Michael’s son, William, as Troy’s.
Fast forward nine years. When Helena’s father, the famous, respected Senator Cabot, dies, his secretary, a spurned former beau of Helena’s, informs Troy of William’s true paternity. Troy goes ballistic and beats Helena. In anger and fear, she resolves to divorce him and asks Michael to be the co-respondent in the proceedings. Michael refuses to comply, but in visiting Helena, he meets William and immediately realizes that William is his son.
As the violence at home escalates and Michael begins to bring pressure on her to incorporate himself into William’s life, Helena runs away to Moon Lake Lodge, an abandoned resort. She begins to make a new life for herself there, hoping to get away from all men. But Michael follows her, and she cannot deny her long-suppressed feelings for him.
Many, many things are wrong with this book, starting with the fact that Michael and Helena have no chemistry. Zilch, nada, nil. Wiggs repeats over and over how hot they are for each other, but other than tedious mental lusting, there’s little evidence that they even like being with each other. Their history, which had the potential for being interesting, is never developed (at least in this book) and Helena’s flaky behavior in regards to her pregnancy isn’t hashed out between them in any kind of satisfactory way.
Also there are any number of annoying details that I can’t prove are wrong, but just feel wrong. Wiggs never specifies how old Helena, Michael, and Troy are, but they feel very late-twenties/early-thirties to me. But Troy, who is a senator looking at re-election for a second term would have to be a minimum of thirty-six. More likely, he would be older. We know from one of Michael’s flashbacks that he’s only a few years younger than Troy. They were boys at the same time, and Michael is definitely not in his forties. So the characters’ ages definitely feel off.
Then there’s the divorce. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, divorce was almost unheard of and, when accomplished, completely scandalous. A woman lost a great deal in a divorce; afterwards, her reputation was in tatters. Yet Troy beats Helena once, and she begins plotting legal strategies. Which is not to say that abused women should stay with their abusers, but that it’s unlikely Helena would have seen divorce as a real option. And when the divorce becomes too difficult to obtain, she decides to get an annulment. I have no idea how hard it was to get an annulment in the nineteenth century, but it can’t have been as simple as Wiggs makes it out to be. Easy, breezy. 1-2-3: marriage over.
Packed into this over-full book are Helena’s struggle with illiteracy and her attempts to help the unfortunate. At Half Moon Lodge she takes in any number of social misfits, including one Native American woman who is miraculously cured of her alcoholism by a little home-grown female bonding. These women build a females-only spa around a hot spring Michael drills on Helena’s leased property. One would think that doing that much improvement work on someone else’s land would be a bad investment. But in Helena’s good people/bad people universe, landlords take it all in stride.
All of the above is borderline agonizing, but the scale-tipper is the subtle Biology is Everything message Wiggs weaves into her story. Of course Troy is a Bad Person. Totally bad; thoroughly bad. Ergo, he is a bad father, specifically, an uninvolved father. Despite having lived on and off with Troy his entire life, William takes his absence (when he’s in Washington or Albany doing senatorial stuff) completely in stride. There are no “Where’s Daddy?” confrontations. William seems to have no identity conflicts. He’s more worried about the possible loss of his stuff than the breakup of his family. And isn’t it convenient that Troy was so awful since he’s doomed to be history anyway?
Conversely, William bonds immediately and effectively with his biological dad. Michael steps back in the picture, and they are best buds. Michael does try harder, granted, but the immediate connection cannot be overlooked. Michael knows the instant he sees William that he is his son. The very instant, despite the fact that they don’t look at all alike except around the eyes. Why does the child always have to respond better to the biological parent? This is such a cliché. Of course, if Troy hadn’t been so uninvolved and hadn’t been sterile (of course), then the resolution to this story would have been ever so much messier. Yet more lifelike. Oh, we can’t have that. No, sir. Instead, let’s demolish a family and have no victims because that’s what Happily Ever After means. Making Troy actually resemble a human being would certainly get in the way of that. Good thing Wiggs never even attempts it.
Enchanted Afternoon feels very cobbled together. The story is meandering and Wiggs seems to want to include a little of everything. Let’s see, perhaps this could have been a good story. Make Helena likable, give Troy a little dimension, take out all the “we women don’t need men” assertions, dump the biology agenda, whittle down the enormous, undeveloped cast of characters, work through some of the clumsy prose – wait, I’m wrong. It’s flawed and not very workable at even its most fundamental level. If you’re in desperate need of a Wiggs fix, she’s got a pretty long backlist including seven books we’ve reviewed here. I’d recommend The Horsemaster’s Daughter, which received DIK status, or any of the three books we graded in the B range rather of this one, which I’ll file under the heading “When bad books happen to good authors.”
|Review Date:||September 5, 2002|