Once and Forever
I’m a picky reader. There, I’ve admitted it. When I pick up a book, I want professional writing, a plot that makes sense, interesting dialogue and characters that behave in a psychologically believable manner. Once and Forever has a fairly interesting plot. That, however, may very well be the only thing it has going for it.
Maggie Whitaker is a woman who is going through the mother of all mid-life crises. She has just lost her job, her deadbeat artist husband has divorced her, and she’s about to be evicted from her home. On top of everything else, she’s turning 40 in a few days. Then her aunt Edithe, a holistic healer living in England, mails her a plane ticket out of the blue and invites her to come on an extended vacation, and Maggie gladly grabs onto that lifeline. However, things start becoming weird when Maggie attends a Renaissance fair. First there’s this mysterious little girl dressed in white who gives her a flower and promptly disappears. Next she has what seems to be a panic attack in the maze at the fair, and she begins running. Before she knows it, she finds herself in a forest without a maze in sight and running into a man on horseback.
The man, a poet and singer known as Nicholas Layton, insists that she is Lady Margaret Whitaker, cousin to Lady Elthea of Amesbury and betrothed to her son, Robert. Not only that, but Maggie’s alleged fiancé is Nicholas’ political opponent and a plotter against Queen Elizabeth I. However, Maggie finds herself mysteriously, instantly attracted to Nicholas (a regular medieval version of Sting, apparently), almost as if they’ve known each other before.
At that point the book, which has been a mediocre but not offensively bad, takes a nosedive. One of the biggest irritants is Maggie’s attitude towards the people from the past. She goes into prompt denial and insists on treating everyone she meets like they’re re-enactors from the Renaissance fair. Not only that, but she talks and thinks like a 17-year old Valley Girl instead of a 40-year old professional. Words like “sheesh” and “geez” as well as phrases like “don’t go there” liberally pepper Maggie’s speech and thoughts. These may very well be American slang in current usage, but it’s a bit hard to believe that someone will hang on so tenaciously to the vernacular when in a foreign land, no matter the time period. It does serve to contrast Maggie with the people from the past, but it only makes her sound like someone a third her age.
The Elizabethan language and setting don’t receive the treatment they deserve. The characters “thee” and “thou” sporadically, the sentence structures are modern, and there aren’t enough archaisms, which makes the conversations sound like a bad imitation of Shakespeare. Maggie doesn’t seem to have much difficulty understanding the speech or the writing of the period (have you seen what handwriting from that period looks like?), although the people from the past are, understandably, stumped by Maggie’s constant use of modern jargon. An author writing about this period has to balance accessibility with authenticity, and this author was certainly leaning towards accessibility. Those who aren’t anal about historical settings might not be bothered by the language as much, but anachronistic language drags me out of the story more than anything else. The fascinating political intrigue and manners of the time are given in large expostulatory chunks, but we don’t get to see much of it, either.
But perhaps most unconvincing of all is the love story itself. It’s quite hard to pinpoint what’s wrong with it, since I believe in reincarnation, fate and soul mates, but the instantaneous attraction between Maggie and Nick strikes a false note. The emotional intensity is certainly watered down by the amount of saccharine pseudo-philosophizing about “following your heart.” Good advice, certainly, but it takes on tones of preachiness, especially at the extremely improbable ending. The views expressed in the book about love between soul mates also sound far too New Age to be coming from people living in Elizabethan England. The concepts themselves have existed for millennia, but the method of expression sound like pure 90s.
Once and Forever is so painful to read because it has so much wasted potential. It certainly has a lot of good things to say, and the plot and setting have almost infinite possibilities. However, because of the mediocre writing, unconvincing treatment of the setting and flat characterization, I can’t recommend it.