Labor Of Love
Jenna Mindel’s latest release, Labor Of Love reads like a vaguely pleasant combination of Regency setting and faddish baby-book plot. It’s marred by a glaring hole in its premise * and a heroine whose motivations are questionable. As these flaws become apparent early on, credibility and sympathy suffer as a result.
Olivia Lawton, Lady Beresford, is a newly widowed mother-to-be, eight months along in her first pregnancy. At the death of her husband, his distant cousin Edmund became “heir” and gave her the boot, as her late husband’s will made no provision for her support. She and her younger sister Susannah are traveling by coach past the estate of Lord Sheldrake when their horses are spooked by an oncoming storm, and their carriage is thrown onto its side. Lord Sheldrake himself arrives to help the unwieldy Olivia from the remains of her vehicle, and insists that the sisters stay the night at his home. But Susannah’s gossip depicts Sheldrake as a murderer, a man who killed his own stepfather in a fit of rage. Can they really be safe in his home?
They’ll soon find out, because a doctor judges Olivia unfit to travel until she gives birth. As Olivia’s attraction for her host grows, so does her determination to find out whether or not the rumors are true. And if they are not, she will need to clear the name of the man she intends to make her husband.
One of the biggest problems with this story is, as I mentioned earlier, the premise. When Beresford died, his cousin could not have become his heir. Why not? Because his succession could not be determined until Olivia gave birth. If she bore a son, he would become the heir. If she bore a daughter, the title would pass to Cousin Edmund. But not until then. Given this very vital piece of information, the premise upon which this tale rests is invalid because Olivia simply cannot be the poor relative and be the pregnant widow. This is the type of glaring error that makes Regency aficionados grit their teeth in annoyance.
In additon, Olivia herself leaves a bit to be desired. She decides before she even meets Sheldrake that she needs to marry a rich man – the sooner the better. Of course, the opportunity to become close to one such candidate soon presents itself as she conveniently becomes confined to Sheldrake Hall, thanks to a mysterious condition related to her pregnancy (and one that apparently fluctuates; early on she can’t possibly travel as far as a neighbor’s for tea, while later on – in the book and in her pregnancy – she is gallivanting around the countryside on a picnic). That she and Sheldrake fall in love is all well and good, but I was not at all convinced that she would accept his suit as readily – if at all – were he the simple, penniless farmer that she initially took him to be. Furthermore, she never seems to doubt her ability to snare him. It’s simply a given, yet what we’re told about her experience with her neglectful husband (he’s basically left her alone for the last several years, yet conveniently impregnates her for the first time just months before his death) gives us no reason to believe this. Self-confidence is an endearing quality in a heroine, but here it comes off as puzzling arrogance.
On the other hand, the hero is a nice enough fellow, although given to usual, clichéd concerns – “she’d never love me if she knew the truth about my past.” The mystery surrounding him is interesting, but he’s basically a pretty generic hero. Still, he gets the benefit of the doubt, as he’s an honorable – although slightly clueless – guy.
The secondary characters are also pleasant enough. Susannah is fairly interesting, headstrong and precocious, and her relationship with an army captain who is conveniently passing through is a highlight, although more for its impact on other characters than for any kind of added romance. Meanwhile, Sheldrake’s friend Peter Blessing (first seen in Blessing in Disguise) is a charming fellow who brightens things from time to time. He attempts to clue Sheldrake into the vagaries of female thought and emotion – while thoroughly messing up his own private life. Overall, the secondary cast is nice wallpaper.
As a whole, this novel isn’t horrible, but the aforementioned flaws set it a step down from average. It’s not enough to make me avoid Mindel’s work in the future – but it won’t make me seek her out, either.
* “If a peer dies leaving a wife but no son, time must be allowed to be sure she is not pregnant before the heir presumptive assumes the title.” — Jo Beverley, English Titles in the 18th and 19th Centuries