Fortune’s Bride isn’t all that bad, really. It has a certain exuberant energy that (barely) saves it from a full-on D grade. Unfortunately, almost everything else about it – plot, characterization, dialogue – is trite, occasionally bordering on childish. As I read this book, I kept feeling that I wasn’t reading a real romance novel, but a sort of Romance Lite – half the fat, half the calories, but twice the sugar and preservatives.
Lady Alyssa Porter and her younger sister Calla are Helpless Orphans with a Wicked, Money-Grubbing Guardian who consigns them to a small cottage in the wilds of Northumberland. Alyssa, bright species of womanhood that she is, decides that they can’t stay if Calla is to have a proper coming-out. Thus, she concocts a plan no less brilliant than herself: she decides to make a fortune by posing as a gypsy and telling fortunes at balls and parties. Defying all logic, she actually manages to fool the ton and becomes a bona fide fortune-telling success.
Enter Ian Fortune, the estranged grandson of the Duke of Hammond. He’s a natural skeptic, and is determined to prove Alyssa an imposter, which results in all kinds of capers, such as Alyssa cursing Ian with a plague of frogs. Events are further complicated when a heavily veiled Alyssa and Calla encounter Ian while taking a stroll in the park. Alyssa is forced to pretend to be a widow (atrociously, I might add – I couldn’t believe this woman managed to fool everyone into thinking she was an actual gypsy for as long as she did). Of course, Ian eventually finds out about Alyssa’s double deception, and in tried-and-true Irritable Alpha fashion, refuses to listen to her, immediately making assumptions about her without bothering to find out the whole truth.
At this point, the meddling Duke of Hammond interferes. He attempts to marry Ian to Alyssa by proxy. Ian decides not to marry Alyssa just to spite his grandfather, so naturally, they fall madly in love. Then they decide that they can’t be together. More curses are made. Wait – maybe there’s a way for them to be together. Wait – no, there isn’t. A pointless suspense side-plot surfaces, involving a fraudulent gold mining company. Meanwhile, Alyssa insists on walking alone late at night in the dark London streets, blithely exposing herself to all sorts of danger. And when in the end she’s unmasked for who she is, Alyssa’s deception is forgiven by one and all in the notoriously hypocritical and censorious ton.
By that point, my suspension of disbelief wasn’t just strained, it was actively gasping for air. And my reaction to the main characters wasn’t much better. The connection between Alyssa and Ian consists mostly of antagonism seasoned with lust, switching dizzily to mushiness at the end of the book. Their lukewarm attempts at witty repartee are painful to witness, and when they declare their love for each other, all I felt was mild puzzlement. Their realization of love is of the Sudden Revelation variety, a plot device that, like pink polyester pantsuits, should be laid to rest once and for all, never to be resurrected.
Another major distraction in this book is the fact that the characters are basically modern people in period clothing. For instance, Ian invites Alyssa in her respectable-widow disguise to dine with him, alone, at his house. I’m fairly certain that a man in early nineteenth-century England inviting a respectable woman he has met only twice to have a private dinner with him is extremely irregular.
The secondary characters are similarly flat, with one notable exception: the Wicked Guardian’s assistant. Isaac Meiser, who wishes to marry Alyssa and has all the earmarks of a villain (he’s short, overweight, ugly, and desires the heroine), turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The other secondary characters, from Calla the free-spirited younger sister to the uptight Duke of Hammond, are predictable second bananas.
Despite its flaws, however, Fortune’s Bride, unlike the worst romances I’ve read, commits no egregious grammatical errors, and at its very worst is still readable. It’s just that it exasperated more often than it amused. When a book makes me play “If only” in my head every few pages – “If only he wouldn’t assume such asinine things about her, if only she thought before she spoke, if only that plot twist made at least a little sense” were a few – I know I can’t recommend it.