Never Too Late
Never Too Late was one of those books where what could have been a decent premise was ruined by poor execution.
I was initially intrigued by the fact that the more usual gender/age roles were reversed, with the heroine being forty and the hero twenty-six. Even now, a couple in which the woman is considerably older than the man still raises eyebrows. I thought there was potential in the idea of setting an older woman/younger man romance in 1851, to explore the obstacles and prejudices such a couple would have had to overcome.
Running alongside the romance is the secondary plot about the heroine, widowed bookseller Mrs. Honoria Duchamp, stumbling across a child prostitution and pornography racket, and her efforts to expose it and stop more children being abducted and abused.But there are powerful people involved in these horrible activities, people who want to protect their identities and who will go to extreme lengths to do so. When the men in charge realize that Honoria has discovered the house in which the children are kept, one Mr. Withersby instructs Alex, Lord Devin, to spy on her and do whatever is needed to disrupt her business. Devin is told that Honoria is printing seditious pamphlets as a sideline to her business as a bookseller, and as Withersby is blackmailing him (he has incriminating photographs of Devin’s brother with another man) Alex has little choice but to make Honoria’s acquaintance and start snooping around.
Alex is immediately intrigued by Honoria, as is she by him, but he’s too young and too handsome for her and she is suspicious when he begins to pay her compliments and even mores o when he kisses her mere hours after meeting her.
So far, so good – in terms of the plot, at least. The author has seized upon two less common issues encountered in historical romantic fiction, so as I’ve said, the premise was promising.
But the book falls down badly in terms of the writing and tone. The author frequently uses anachronistic language (”Get over yourself”), incorrect terminology (Bach didn’t write any Cello concerti) and poor word choices.
For example, Honoria tells Alex:
”Of course, then we may maintain our acquaintance. You may visit me at the shop as you choose. But I have provisions.”
And then later she says:
“My grandfather held a baronet.”
There is a conversation between Honoria and her three friends who comprise the Needlework for the Needy society, in which one of them says that her “gut” feels unsettled about something. I really can’t imagine a proper Victorian lady using such a term.
There are also situations which stretch plausibility so much that, if it were a piece of elastic, it would never regain its original shape. Alex’s mother, the Dowager Viscountess, is presented as rather a free-thinker, although she is still accepted in society and invitations to her dinners and parties are highly sought after. I imagine the author is trying to account for the fact that Lady Devin invites a woman about whom she knows absolutely nothing to a dinner party which will be attended by (among others) Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning ,and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and seems to have no concern whatsoever about Alex’s relationship with a woman fourteen years his senior. Not only does she invite this unknown tradeswoman to a prestigious event at her home, but within minutes of making her acquaintance, she offers to lend Honoria a dress suitable for dinner. She doesn’t make an outright offer, instead coming up with a ridiculous story of how she and her now deceased sister used to like playing “dress-up,” so she would deem it a kindness if Honoria were to borrow one of her sister’s dresses. True, she doesn’t say, “That dress you have on is horrible, for God’s sake go and find something else,” but Honoria falls for it anyway.
Then, while Honoria is dressing, her ladyship tells her all about her late husband, how much she loved him, how he met his death etc. All this to a woman she had never met until a few minutes before.
There are so many other implausibilities or things that stretched my credulity past breaking point that it would take too long to list them. Withersby’s incriminating photographs of Alex’s brother are worthless because Andrew is not gay and can provide the names of various courtesans who have obliged him in order to prove it. Alex is desperate to get into Honoria’s knickers – but when she eventually asks him to, he turns her down because he doesn’t want to take advantage. When he finally does get that far, he’s astonished to discover that she’s a virgin (turns out she was never actually married) – and then doesn’t finish what they’ve started.
The sex scenes are fairly tame, but I admit I had to suppress laughter on several occasions. There’s a difficult line to walk between “hot” and “funny” when it comes to writing sex, and sadly too often in this book we’re on the “funny” side of it.
There were also a lot of issues introduced that were never fully explored. Alex is bitter about the fact that his late father seemed to prefer his life as an explorer to being at home with his family; he’s afraid of horses; he’s an accomplished cellist but hasn’t played in years (and despite that is still able to perform some of Bach’s Cello Suites perfectly). I felt I was being bombarded with Alex’s issues as a way of making him a more interesting character, but I’m afraid it didn’t work.
And that brings me to the biggest of my many problems with the book. I had absolutely no idea what Alex and Honoria saw in each other, or, indeed, who they were as people. Alex insists that he loves Honoria for who she is – but neither of them ever felt real to me, and because of that, I was never drawn into the story or brought to care about what actually happened to them.
For me, that’s the greatest deficit I could find in any story. I read romance for the emotional connection between the protagonists and between the characters and the reader, and if that doesn’t happen, then I am unlikely to enjoy the book. But in addition to that, there were numerous failings in terms of the structure and writing – typographical and grammatical errors, as well as many instances of what I can only describe as poor writing. By that I mean that the sentence construction is either tortuous or too simplistic (most often the latter), word choice is awkward, and it just generally feels unpolished.
While it’s the author’s name on the cover, I’m not putting the entirety of the blame for that at her feet, however, because errors in spelling and grammar should be picked up by a good proofreader, and errors in terminology, word-choice, and sentence structure should, surely, be highlighted by the editor and options discussed with the writer. However, none of this was addressed in the editing process, and the result is that a promising plot turned into a dismal read.