I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for heroines who are tough and resilient, but also convinced that they’re unattractive. You know the ones; they’re called too gawky, tall, heavy, short, etc. by everyone in their families, so they’re certain those opinions are right. Perhaps it’s the small confidence issues most women, me included, feel, that make me believe in and want to root for the “unappealing” heroine, when the character is done right. But rooting value in a heroine isn’t enough to carry this mail-order bride romance.
There’s a moment in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts’ character is in bed talking with Richard Gere and she tells him “it’s easier to believe the bad things.” She’s explaining that it’s easier to believe and internalize the bad things people tell us about ourselves than the good things. That’s the problem for Emily Cannon. She’s been told since childhood that she’s plain and unattractive and she believes it. Emily’s sister, Alyssa, was always the pretty one. Alyssa was about to travel to Oregon to meet and marry the man she’d been corresponding with, when she was killed. So when Emily loses her job as a teacher in Chicago she thinks her only option is to offer herself in Alyssa’s place as a bride for Luke Becker and a mother to his eleven-year-old daughter Rose.
Though it’s a basic set-up, the first third of the book shows some real promise. Emily is financially pretty desperate and she tells herself that’s why she proposes taking Alyssa’s place. The reality is her family is gone and she’s lonely. She figures she’ll never have her own family in the conventional way and though Luke was expecting Alyssa, she knows she can be a good wife and mother. Emily’s lack of confidence is entirely believable given her background, as is her sense of what’s proper. This is a woman living during the height of Victorian formality and repression. Don’t get me wrong; Emily is an entirely appealing heroine, but she is one of the few who seems to fit her time and is completely consistent in her characterization.
Luke fits his setting too but unlike Emily, he’s an unevenly drawn character. He’s a farmer living outside a small town in Oregon who has very little ready cash (which makes sense). He’s still pining for the wife who died three years ago and when he begins to feel attracted to Emily, he feels horribly guilty (which doesn’t make as much sense). Some men do pine and feel guilt, but it turns out his marriage wasn’t all that great because of his interfering, bitter mother-in-law, Cora. This is the same woman he now has living in his house helping to raise his daughter, Rose. Rose is turning into a handful because of Cora and Luke hopes Emily will have a civilizing influence on her. Problem is, he does absolutely nothing to promote this possibility and is extremely passive when it comes to dealing with Cora.
Once Emily has settled in at the farm, the energy of the storytelling begins to flatten. Emily spends time battling with Cora, trying to get close to Rose and figuring out her feelings for Luke – all conflicts that should make for tense scenes. After the first couple, however, a pattern develops. Emily and Luke aren’t doing anything; they’re merely reacting to what’s done to them, and that makes the tone rather passive.
Though I liked Emily and I thought the setup had promise, the one-note plotting began to wear a bit thin. You might give it a try if you absolutely adore mail order bride stories, but I wouldn’t make a special trip to pick up this one.
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