Once an Angel
Grade : A

The book I began my keeper shelf with was Once an Angel. Rereading it, I found out why. Seamless, lyrical prose (Medeiros is truly a word artist), an unconventional setting, touches of magic realism, and a hero and heroine who need each other so deeply, I felt the world might end if they couldn't be together - now that's a keeper!

Emily Scarborough has been orphaned since her father died in New Zealand during a goldmining expedition. She's been living at Mrs. Winters' School for Girls in a Dickensian London, where her lack of funds has made her a virtual slave. Looking to foist her off on her cash-poor guardian, Justin Connor, who was one of her father's partners, Mrs. Winters puts Emily on a steamer bound for the North Island. Events conspire that leave her thrown overboard and swimming in the Tasman Sea, where she is washed up naked on a stretch of beach inhabited by one. . . Justin Connor. Thinking at first she is a gift from the sea, upon kissing her he finds himself mistaken when she informs him of what happened to the last man who stuck his tongue in her mouth.

You see, Emily is a bit high-spirited (okay, she's a troublemaker). She quickly discovers just who Justin is, but decides to keep her own identity secret. It's not difficult, since Justin still thinks his old partner's daughter is a child. What ensues is a magical sojourn, but soon Justin must leave his island home and Emily, returning to a cold London. When Emily follows, the truth about her identity is revealed, and Justin fights his feelings for her, while also dealing with some major guilt over the death of her father.

While some standard scenarios are used (the ward and guardian, the tropical island) Medeiros is atypical in her approach. Take for instance the character of Emily. She could easily be seen as a brat, but her background and loneliness make her actions understandable. She's lost the only family she's ever known, and the one man who was supposed to watch out for her seems to have turned his back. It's not hard to believe she would do anything for his attention. What makes her even more complex is her guilt over her antics - this is what makes Emily a well-rounded and sympathetic character, not just a "bad girl". But I confess, some of the scrapes she found herself in had me laughing out loud - I wouldn't have her any other way, and neither, I think, would Justin.

Justin could have been your paint-by-numbers tortured hero, but he escapes that trap by dealing with some pretty tough issues - not the least of which are his involvement in his partner's death, and his desire for the child that partner left behind, who is now a woman. Did I mention Justin is a pianist and composer with magnificent hands? I fell for this sensitive artist like a ton of bricks.

These two lonely people need each other so badly, but it's Justin who fights his feelings, not Emily. When he finally capitulates, it proves to be worth the wait (there's a scene in a bordello that manages to be hilarious, erotic, and deeply moving all at once). The love scenes are enhanced by the layered writing, and I appreciated the fact that the conflict doesn't suddenly stop when the hero and heroine get together - these two troubled people have to work to reach a happy ending.

Why did I fall for this book so hard? I think the bigest reason is my empathy for Emily. I usually gravitate towards the hero, but in this case I identified so much with the heroine - maybe it was her curly hair, or her penchant for getting into trouble, but her imperfections are what make her perfect for Justin. The use of humor won me over, too - there are some biting one-liners in Once an Angel. Add the lush descriptions of New Zealand that contrast so well with the darker atmosphere of London in winter, and such memorable supporting characters as a valet who has a rather unhealthy fascination with tea and a Maori chieftain who prefers speaking in five syllable words and you have one of the most original love stories of the last decade. Pure serendipity led me to pick it up, and I'm so glad I was rewarded with a book that earns its keeper status every time I reread it.

Reviewed by Other
Grade : A

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : June 6, 2000

Publication Date: 1993

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