My Fair Princess
Vanessa Kelly has been having some fun expanding the family trees of the House of Hanover. The promiscuous reputations of the Prince Regent and his brothers inspired her series The Renegade Royals, introducing men who were the illegitimate offspring of the royal princes and dukes. Using this same idea for her newest release My Fair Princess – first in The Improper Princesses series – the focus shifts to one of the daughters born from these scandalous affairs.
The island of Sicily has been the only home Gillian Dryden has ever known and is perhaps the only place where she feels comfortable being herself. Unfortunately, when her grandmother and mother decide that Italy is no longer a suitable place for their family, Gillian has no choice but to relocate along with them. As the bastard daughter of the Duke of Cumberland a return to England will only put Gillian under the microscope of the ton to be scrutinized and ridiculed for every misstep she takes. Gillian has always been more comfortable following her own standards and has no desire to conform to English ways just so she can find a suitable gentleman to protect her from the scandal of her birth. Her plan is to travel along with the family, attend a few balls or social gatherings to make them happy, and then convince them that everyone would be much better off returning to live in Italy.
Lady Marbury understands her granddaughter’s reluctance to leave Sicily but there is more risk to her future if they were to stay then by dealing with the old gossip. To assist Gillian’s transition into London society she enlists the help of her great-nephew the Duke of Leverton. Charles Penley’s reputation as a proper and sophisticated duke has earned him respect among the nobility so he is in the best position to teach Gillian the behaviors that will gain her acceptance. Their first meeting goes a bit awry as Charles comes to realize that Gillian is quite content behaving more like a hoyden than the daughter of a noblewoman and a prince. His work is cut out for him when Gillian cannot help but fan the flames of gossip by speaking her mind or acting improperly towards the very gentlemen she’s meant to attract.
Things become complicated for Gillian the harder she tries to fit in to society. The old rumors about her mother have colored how everyone sees her, painting her in the same broad strokes of a loose woman or someone without character. She is labeled with a horrible nickname by those jealous of her association with the Duke of Leverton, even though all of their interactions have been perfectly respectable. A final bold act forces Charles to remove her from London in the hopes that her reputation can be salvaged once the new whispers have quieted down.
Living in close quarters at Leverton’s estate changes the dynamic between them. No longer in the roles of student and teacher of proper social etiquette, Charles and Gillian begin to notice the attraction they feel for each other. Little things like Gillian’s boldness, her fiercely protective nature and her clear way of thinking brings Charles around to respecting her for the woman she is; however catching Gillian in small vulnerable moments makes him realize just how difficult her life has been being trapped between worlds. Their relationship grows from a tentative friendship into much more but it becomes very difficult for Gillian to move past the insecurities she’s hidden from everyone or trust her heart to someone who should be with a woman who matches his reputation as “Perfect Penley.”
From its title readers should understand that My Fair Princess is a spin on Pygmalion or the musical My Fair Lady; however Ms. Kelly writes the story with a more feminist approach to show that Gillian doesn’t really need to be remodeled but rather needs to be understood for who she really is. Gillian is intelligent, resourceful and perfectly capable of fitting in should she choose to, but she has learned out of necessity to be comfortable in the skin she was born with. It is Charles who goes through the most changes, accepting that his adherence to society’s expectations has just been a front to protect himself from emotional exposure. A betrayal from his former intended as well as a father who stressed morality above all forced Charles into a very small box that he is finally able to break free of by borrowing a little of Gillian’s moxie. Switching up who is the Eliza and who is the Professor Higgins is a clever way to keep readers from getting bored with a storyline we know so well.
Where the book falls down has less to do with the story itself but more with the author’s style of writing. Each chapter does a good job of setting a scene, putting Charles and Gillian together in either a discussion or a situation where they have to consider the other person, and then it will end with some kind of dramatic revelation or on a line of dialog that attracts the reader’s attention. Unfortunately as the next chapter opens it’s like Ms. Kelly pushed a reset button and people, places and things are all in very different positions to where we last saw them. Characters then spend pages and pages thinking back to how the previous cliffhanger was resolved or ponder how things have changed after a heated conversation we are never a part of. It’s very frustrating to follow a moment in the story only to meet a brick wall when a chapter ends. The momentum of the story or empathy built for the characters as they experience everything in real time is lost.
Removing the writing choices from the equation, My Fair Princess is an enjoyable mix of a headstrong woman matching wits with a patient but determined man. Their battles don’t quite spark with sexual tension; however the affinity they share is very plain to see. The story serves as a good beginning for The Improper Princesses series.