Reading Francesca proved to be such a long, horrific process for me, I began to wonder how in the world it ever got published, even if the writer is one of the founding mothers of the romance genre. I got so curious, I checked the AAR review archives to see where, perhaps, Bertrice Small’s books went off the rails. Of the sixteen titles AAR has reviewed, nine received D or F grades. Nine of them! I should have checked the history before taking on this book.
The beautiful daughter of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, Francesca Pietro d’Angelo is spoiled and vain. Her parents’ desire to see her married and secure means nothing to her, for she is far too feisty and independent to ever marry. But a family friend arranges for Francesca to be one of three possible brides to Rafaello Cesare, the heir of the Duke of Terreno Boscoso. Francesca has no intention of marrying this guy, but she agrees to travel to meet him after her father bribes her with clothes and horses, and promises her she won’t have to marry the future duke if he doesn’t suit.
When Rafaello chooses Francesca to be his bride and her father agrees – her father hadn’t said Rafaello must suit her, only himself – she stamps her tiny slippered feet and runs away because she believes Rafaello doesn’t truly love her and has only chosen her as the least objectionable option. Traveling all alone, she gets lost in the forest (for about two pages) only to emerge and obtain instant employment as a serving wench at an inn even though she has never so much as brushed her own hair. She spends the winter learning the wenching trade and flirting with the mysterious huntsman Carlo, who does his best to seduce Francesca. While she’s very tempted – and even falls in love with him – Francesca manages to resist Carlo’s charms so that she will be pure for her future husband, whomever he might be.
When spring arrives, Francesca realizes she’s been acting like a spoiled brat and decides to return to the family that she misses. She doesn’t expect that Rafaello will still want to marry her and is thoroughly stunned when she is escorted back to his castle and hustled into a wedding dress. Rafaello and Francesca wed, have florid sex, decide that they dig each other, and begin to work on fulfilling their duty of producing an heir while facing invaders from France. Danger forces them to take their family into hiding until tragedy strikes, and Francesca realizes that she must take action to save Terreno Boscoso, the home she’s grown to love.
I don’t have the time or the patience to see if Bertrice Small’s oldest titles have the same problems as I found in this current release. If so, she certainly benefited from my general ignorance back then of how good romance novels can be. Every single thing that could be wrong with this book is wrong with it. In fact, I imagine that Francesca is the book that would result if written by a person who has never read a single romance novel in their entire life yet claims that they are all poorly written, formulaic tripe and works hard to fulfill that delusion.
My first hurdle was to adjust to mind-spinning changes in point of view, which put me in any given character’s head at any given moment. Recovering from the vertigo, I then had to adjust to dialogue so stilted and expositional it read like a parody of a novel. Contractions were a rarity, meaning that everyone sounded as if they had just learned to speak English.
The villains are so two dimensional and predictable as to be an insult to Snidely Whiplash. Despite the fact that Rafaello is good looking, wealthy, educated, clean, friendly, and kind, Francesca won’t marry him because he didn’t confess his undying love to her — even though she made it a point to ignore him the entire time he was trying to get to know her.
This was a story told, not shown. Solutions popped up out of nowhere when they were needed to move things along. And whoever doesn’t see the twist regarding the mysterious Carlo coming from a mile away must be reading a different book.
If none of the above conveys the horribleness that was this read, I will warn you that it does not end happily, at least not by conventional romance novel standards. In fact, I would say that the ending moves Francesca off the shelves of true romance novels and on to the historical fiction with a strong (and I use that word lightly) romantic element. Stand warned, you might be tempted to throw the book against the wall. Again.
Francesca is the second book in the Silk Merchant’s Daughters series, and while it can stand alone, there are many mentions to what I assume was an adventure Francesca experienced in the previous book. I honestly couldn’t have cared less about it.
You may be wondering why I went with a D- instead of an F grade on this one. That’s because for all its flaws, this book didn’t manage to make me angry. I never felt like it insulted my intelligence because this book never asked me to employ any intelligence in the first place. This book was awful, but in the end I didn’t care enough to give it a true failing grade.