Once Upon a Kiss
Jayne Fresina’s Once Upon a Kiss is the first in her Book Club Belles Society series, and I liked the idea of a historical book club, especially since the women in it are reading Pride and Prejudice. Unfortunately, a well-written story with clever, humorous turns of phrase is saddled with the most fingernails-on-a-chalkboard heroine I’ve ever encountered.
Justina Penny is the nineteen-year-old daughter of a doctor and has always lived in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, so she acts up to get attention. Justina also lives for drama, and in the small village of Hawcombe Prior, there isn’t much of that unless she creates it herself. So here are just a few of the things she does :
- Tries to jump over a mud puddle, falls in halfway and splatters a woman nearby
- Walks out into a lane into the path of a carriage, which makes the carriage run off the road into a ditch
- Steals fruit from a stranger’s garden, and, when she’s caught, pretends to be a ghost
- Climbs down the outside of a building, which causes her skirts to be caught up and exposes her drawers
- Leaps into a man’s bed wearing only her stockings, because she’s curious about sex
I think the author was going for spontaneous, spirited and funny. Unfortunately, to me, it’s inconsiderate, immature and foolish, and I kept cringing in anticipation of what lunatic thing Justina would do next. Even the book club part of the story doesn’t work, because Justina goes on and on about how exciting Wickham is. Then again, she’s the second coming of Lydia Bennet – if Lydia was completely implausible.
As for the hero, you’ve probably guessed that he’s a tightly-buttoned-up grump. Darius Wainwright has inherited a property from his great-uncle in Hawcombe Prior, but he has no interest in living in a village. That said, there’s a rumor that his great-uncle buried a priceless treasure on the property. This subplot seemed mostly a reason to bring Darius and Justina together as they search for the treasure, and I wasn’t really caught up in it because Darius was in no need of money.
I liked Darius’s backstory and in any other romance, he would have been a sympathetic and interesting character. Here though, he’s constantly overshadowed by Justina. They fall in lust at first sight and she’s constantly afflicted by what she calls “Maiden’s Palsy” when she’s around him. Despite being a sheltered virgin, she enthusiastically goes down on him, but since I couldn’t help seeing her as an overgrown child, I had to skim the sex scenes.
That said, Ms. Fresina’s writing is polished and engaging, with a droll sense of humor that reminded me of Anne Shirley. In one of Justina’s diary entries, she bemoans their poorly prepared dinner and decides the cook must be trying to poison her.
If anyone should read this after my demise, please apprise my good parents of the cause and let them know I did love them dearly, even if I sometimes tried their patience intolerably. Cathy may have all my bonnets and my amber cross, although the chain is broken.
But the wit and energy of the writing couldn’t make up for a heroine who doesn’t give a single thought to her physical safety and reputation, let alone to other people’s well-being. In an historical, it’s even more unbelievable that a girl would cavort about like this while her parents do nothing about it. Readers who have a higher tolerance for such antics might enjoy Once Upon a Kiss. For my part, though, while I’d try other books by Jayne Fresina, I can’t recommend this one.