Ruth Owen has written many contemporary novels, and last year entered the historical arena with Gambler’s Daughter. With her second historical, Midnight Mistress, she embraces the Regency era with all the drama and passion possible – and then some. The prose is lush and emotional, and the characters love and hate each other with grand passion.
On New Year’s Day in 1800, young Juliana Dare falls into the Thames and is rescued by Connor Reed, a young homeless boy. In gratitude, Juliana’s father takes Connor into his home, changing all their lives forever. Though Connor and Julianna are both young, they fall in love and plan to marry despite the difference in their social status. But eight years later (also on New Year’s Day), Connor is accused of stealing money from Julianna’s father. He is banished form her home and the family shipping business. When Julianna tries to follow him, she sees him embrace another woman determines he has betrayed her as well. Heartbroken, she goes on to become a London debutante with a string of beaux at her command.
When Connor next appears in her life, he is referring to himself as Captain Gabriel, and he is celebrated as a war hero. Julianna is eager to expose his real identity, but he convinces her to keep it a secret. Both of them try to keep their distance from each other, but they find their mutual passion hard to ignore. Then Julianna’s father is reported lost at sea. His will appoints Julianna head of his large shipping company, and she scandalizes the town by actually taking charge. However, the captains and merchants are reluctant to work with her, so she makes Connor her manager until she can prove herself to her business associates. As they work together, they both begin to fall in love again. But the story takes many twists and turns from here. Twice – or maybe three times – Julianna thinks that Connor has betrayed her and their country as well. As soon as he convinces her otherwise, something else happens that makes him look guilty again. Will these star-crossed lovers ever sort out the truth and find happiness together?
For a short book, Midnight Mistress is long on action. There is always something happening. Towards the end, the plot speeds up even more. Passions fly. They love each other! They hate each other! They love each other again! All the action and emotion are exciting, but they are also surprisingly predictable. If you have been reading romance for more than a month or two, you are likely to guess every secret and foretell every plot turn.
This is also a very dramatic book. The prose is not exactly purple, but it’s heavy with image and emotion. People are always commenting on the heroine’s “sunset hair” and “ocean green eyes,” and characters often pause mid-scene to make impassioned declarations. If you have a high tolerance for camp, you may not mind. But after a while I found myself thinking that sunsets are often pink or purple, and when Connor kissed Julianna “with all the skill he’d learned in a hundred brothels from here to Shanghai,” I wondered what else he might have picked up in those brothels.
Although some aspects of the book are well-researched, there are occasional errors that will seem odd to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Regency era. At one point, Julianna and her companion go into a dockside tavern alone, dressed in all their finery. They don’t seem to think their behavior is especially strange or risky. Then when Julianna father’s will is read, half the ton is in attendance, even though they are not mentioned in the will. Those who can’t fit in the library fill up the other rooms in the house and listen in the doorways. This hardly seems likely – either now, or then.
Despite the predictability of the plot and the abundant melodrama, this book is enjoyable at times. I couldn’t help liking Connor, even though I guessed all his secrets. Unfortunately, the drama proved to be a little much for me. However, if you are a big Woodiwiss fan, you might give this book a try. Author Owen is not quite as wordy, but the action-packed plot and the emotional characters are similar to those found in Woodiwiss’ books.