Enter the Hero
Judith O’Brien’s Enter the Hero requires the reader to suspend a good bit of disbelief but manages to be a pretty fun read anyway. Unfortunately, the story tries to cover too much territory; the end result is that what is best about it becomes diluted by what is only marginally entertaining.
In 1814 Ireland, Emily Fairfax pens plays for the London stage under the name Edgar St. John. Only her 12-year-old sister, Letty, knows about her secret occupation, which grew out of a childhood diversion Emily shared with her three younger sisters. Unfortunately, the characters in St. John’s plays sometimes inadvertently resemble real people, which is why Emily/Edgar has just received, via her London agent, a missive from Lord William Ogilvie demanding satisfaction on the field of honor. She and Letty decide to accept the challenge, so that they can finally meet the mysterious Mr. L.A. so regularly named in the London papers as a second for dueling parties. Their plan is to fabricate an excuse for Mr. St. John’s indisposition when Lord Ogilvie and Mr. Lucius Ashford arrive in Ireland for the dawn meeting. Emily and Letty craft an imaginary hero of epic proportions based on what they have read about Ashford.
Ashford and Ogilvie arrive and are soon ensconced at the breakfast table at Fairfax Castle, where Emily and Letty live with their absentminded father. Ashford figures out that Emily is St. John (and promises not to reveal her secret), and learns that both Letty and Emily have quite a substantial dowry for whomever manages to marry them. Emily is the typical beautiful spinster who has decided not to marry, although her rationale is one of the more believable ones I’ve read in a historical romance (by the time she came of marriageable age, she was taking care of a widowed and clueless father and motherless sisters, and none of the men who had come courting her lucrative dowry could measure up to the heroes of her own imagination). Emily and Ashford begin a correspondence once he returns to London, and trouble occurs when one of his letters gets lost in transit and she feels slighted: to exorcise her demons, she writes a scandalous play that obviously portrays Ashford in caricature, and puts it away, never expecting Letty to stumble upon it and send it to the London agent. When Emily realizes what has happened, she and Letty set off for London to get the play back before it can do any damage.
Enter the Hero would have fared much better had it kept its focus more narrow. Although not always especially believable to one who reads a great deal of historical romance, it was often funny and imaginative. Letty, in particular, was quite the imp, as when she made Mr. St. John’s excuses on the dueling field: “It is most dreadful, sir. Truly. Poor Mr. Edgar St. John was most brutally, gruesomely and revoltingly taken with a rare illness from America which caused his nose to fall off. Right in the middle of tea.” Or her propensity for naming the livestock that later end up as dinner fare (reminds me of my cousin asking my aunt, “Will you pass me another piece of Bessie?”). The conflict between Emily’s idealized notions about “duels of honor” and Ashford’s understandable determination to prevent bloodshed through negotiation was a great place to start. In a society where women were “protected” from the harsh realities of the world, it’s no surprise that such a female would be ignorant about the devastation such acts of “honor” could wreak, and there are a multitude of similar lessons Emily might have learned from Ashford on her way to maturity, had the author chosen to focus more on this interesting angle.
Instead, the story bogs down in events of society and the aspirations of one of Emily’s already-married sisters, domestic violence in the life of the other, and a plot to neutralize Ashford for a progressive program he plans to propose in a few months during his first address to Parliament. While Ashford and Emily see a great deal of each other, the “lost letter” misunderstanding hangs between them: she thinks he was mortified by her last letter and chose not to respond, he thinks she callously dismissed his lengthy missive on the events that led to his abhorrence of dueling. Then, of course, there’s the other bomb, the play which Emily thinks has been taken care of. As a result, the romance itself got rather short shrift, with insufficient build-up of the sexual tension followed by a breakthrough that seemed rushed and anticlimactic.
While Enter the Hero was entertaining in many ways, it had the potential to be a much better read. Though there is a good bit of head-hopping, I liked O’Brien’s style – there’s a lightheartedness about much of it that reminds me of the old romantic comedies for which I have a weakness. And though this isn’t a book I can recommend with great enthusiasm, I will certainly be looking forward to seeing how Ms. O’Brien evolves as a writer with obvious imagination and wit.