Never Kiss a Stranger
“The monkey ruined the feast.” When I read the unusual first line of Heather Grothaus’ latest medieval romance, Never Kiss a Stranger, I was engaged. I had, as the song goes, high hopes which, sadly, were dashed by the rest of the tale. This book has an insufferable teenage heroine, an overly virtuous hero, and a story line that sputters out long before its welcome conclusion. The hero and heroine have so little chemistry that it actually makes a disheartening sort of sense that they scarcely touch each other. The two don’t banter or flirt— they chatter and bicker in ways unfunny and irritating. Even the monkey, improbably named Layla and perhaps the most faceted character in the tale, is, in due course, unappealing.
The monkey and its eventual owner, our trying heroine Lady Alys Foxe, begin their tale at the Foxe family home, the imposing — and coveted by King Edward — Fallstowe. Fallstowe houses the three Foxe sisters: The frosty eldest Sybilla, the pious and unexciting Cecily, and the spoiled, self-centered Alys. The three are orphans and Sybilla must scheme daily — she’s busy nightly with a series of one-night stands — to hold onto the family stronghold. Alys and Sybilla routinely clash and, on the night we meet the monkey, Alys shames the family by insulting the monkey’s owner, a vile woman named Lady Bloodshire. Sybilla, in an act of bitchy sisterly revenge, pledges Alys in marriage to Lady Bloodshire’s effeminate son. Alys, aghast, runs away to Foxe Ring, a place with mystical marriage-related powers. It’s said that when a man and a woman meet in the ancient ring of stones, under a full moon, the two are instantaneously wed.
Alys and the monkey, which Alys names Layla (I kept hearing Eric Clapton every time the monkey was mentioned), are freezing to death in Foxe Ring when up wanders our hero Piers Mallory. Piers gazes at the lovely young girl sleeping on the stones, reaches out to brush back her hood, and is promptly bitten by Layla. Poor Piers. Not only is he trying to recover from a murderous beating at the hands of his dastardly stepmother and stepbrother, he’s suddenly saddled with Alys who announces she’s his wife and then dogs his heels as he, limping, in pain, and now infected by simian bacteria, heads to London to assert his heritage.
Piers is too good for Alys. He’s too good for a viable romance novel. He’s more martyr than mortal. Though he finds Alys annoying he lets her follow him and even gives up sleeping in order to make sure she is safe. It’s hard to appreciate why. For most of the book, Alys is so immature and vapid she’s beyond aggravating. Yes, she’s lovely and she sure does care about that monkey — she feeds it exotic fruits Piers knows would cost a year’s wages — but she makes the average tween look sagacious. I couldn’t stand her and neither can Piers for most of the tale. It’s only when he’s insensate from monkey bite fever he realizes, inexplicably, he loves her.
As the two make their surreptitious way to London — Sybilla, the Bloodshires, and Piers’ truly creepy step-family are all hot on their trail — not much happens. (I did like the part where the pair was saved by a group of Sherwood Forrest-y outcasts who live in trees and believe in a very contemporary type of democracy.) Piers and Alys, despite their claimed love for one another, have no evident attraction. This fable is historical fiction, not historical romance. The two barely touch. When they finally do, Ms. Grothaus’ prose is so awkward, their already tepid pairing becomes even harder to imagine. I couldn’t decide if it was a good or bad thing the monkey wasn’t in bed with them.
As the book ends, the monkey is visiting the tree people and Alys is asleep. She is dreaming not of Piers but (and in this order) music, her dead mother, her future progeny with Piers and — wait for it — the Foxe abode Fallstowe. How weird is that? Perhaps she is as uninspired by her romance as was I. Or maybe she just misses the monkey.