The Cinderella Heiress
Reader, when I see Cinderella in a book title, I have some minimum expectations for the story. One: the heroine was once blessed with a happy (prosperous) life; two: the heroine is treated poorly by a step-family after the death of a birth parent; three: the down-on-her luck heroine never loses faith that things will somehow come out right; and four: that a kind and forgiving heart can overcome the worst life has to offer. In Preston’s take on the Cinderella fairy tale, we get all of those things and more. And unfortunately, it’s the ‘more’ that ruins this plodding, too good to be true, improbable love story.
When The Cinderella Heiress begins, Beatrice Fothergill is sneaking away from her home at Pilcombe Grange, where she lives with her half-brother Percy and his hateful wife Fenella. After the death of her beloved mama, Beatrice became the primary caregiver for her emotionally abusive father – and since his death she’s now completely reliant on Percy’s very begrudging charity. She spends her afternoons meeting Fenella’s every demand, with the pair constantly threatening to throw her out. Drudgery and loneliness mark her days, but she hasn’t given up hope for a better life. Two days earlier, while out walking Fenella’s obnoxious pug, she met the postman when he delivered the post. Amongst letters for Percy was one for her from Messrs Henshaw and Dent, Solicitors, of Bristol, requesting her presence at a meeting. Beatrice can only hope her luck is about to change, and she waits for the promised post-chaise, praying her absence won’t be noted until she’s well away.
If you read the first book, The Rags-to-Riches Governess, you’re already familiar with the news that awaits Beatrice at the solicitors: a massive inheritance and a surprising connection to the two women also sitting in Mr. Henshaw’s office. They’re her half-sisters; all three women had mothers connected to the Tregowan family and estate, and much to their surprise, all three were fathered by the former Lord Tregowan. A vengeful Lady Tregowan left the three women her entire estate, to be divided equally between them subject to certain conditions. The inheritance makes Beatrice a wealthy woman – wealthy enough to finally be free from Percy (who isn’t actually her half-brother!) and Fenella – and sisters she’s always longed for. But the conditions – that she spend the season in London, and that she marry within the year – give her pause. Beatrice knows that Percy will never allow her to leave the Grange unless there’s some advantage to him and Fenella. She spends the majority of the journey home worrying about the will and plotting how to outwit Percy, but her thoughts are interrupted when the post-chaise takes a violent turn and she ends up tossed to the floor of the carriage.
Lord Jack Kingswood has spent the past eight months convalescing at the family estate after the partial loss of his left arm at Waterloo. He’s weary of his twin brother’s overprotective care, and eager to once again live independently – although how still eludes him. When he spots a carriage on its side in a ditch, he runs to see if he can help. He’s surprised to find a woman scrambling around on the floor of the carriage collecting coins, but quickly offers his help and then assists her up and out of the vehicle. Unsure who this beautiful, though somewhat shabbily dressed, woman is, he introduces himself simply as Jack King and offers her a ride home in his own carriage. She initially demurs, but nervously acquiesces after her driver informs her how long it will take to fix hers.
After a bit of awkward small talk, Jack finally coaxes Beatrice into revealing why she was so eager to collect the coins on the floor and where she’s headed. Jack is familiar with Percy Fothergill, and concerned about what might happen after he drops Beatrice at the Grange. Her story about an inheritance is odd, and he isn’t sure he believes her, but once he drops her outside the gates, he finds himself distracted by his own family problems. So despite his curiosity and attraction to Beatrice, weeks go by before he pays her a follow-up visit.
Friends, it’s no spoiler for me to tell you that Jack is the Prince Charming of this story, and that Beatrice is our Cinders. And as you might have guessed, when Beatrice returns home, things don’t quite go as she planned. But she does eventually make it to London with help from Jack, whose visit is providential – saving her from wicked Percy and his nefarious plans. The Cinderella Heiress then unfolds in two parts: the road trip, wherein Beatrice is transported to London under the care of Jack and his bitter, begrudging brother Kit; and London, where Beatrice finds herself cared for by chaperone Ms. Butterby (her fairy godmother?), and her two half-sisters.
Beatrice has been beaten up by a hard life – first with the man she believed was her father, and then by Percy and his vile wife Fenella. They’re awful to her. When she meets Jack, she’s a shadow of her former self – convinced she’s dumb and useless, and that a man as handsome and kind as Jack could never love her. Jack makes her feel beautiful and empowered, but his hot and cold behavior leaves her uncertain and sad.
Jack grew up with a hostile and abusive father and can empathize with all that Beatrice has experienced. He’s drawn to his naive and lovely new friend, but plagued with doubts about his own desirability. He struggles to control his attraction to Beatrice, and with Kit suggesting she’s a scheming seductress trying to trap him into marriage, he isn’t sure what to think. For every step forward with Beatrice and Jack, it’s two steps backwards as they overreact to every perceived slight and doubt their own attraction. Friends, it grows tedious.
Unfortunately, while the insecurities and self-doubts that plague Jack and Beatrice are exhausting, it’s the larger cast of secondary characters that truly sabotage this story. First we have Perry and Fenella, stereotypically villainous characters whose every action is predictable and evil and who make convenient appearances just when the story needs a jolt. Then there’s woman-hating Kit who fell for a widow who cheated on him (or did she never know they were in a committed relationship?) and has despised women ever since; and finally, there’s Beatrice’s found family, which delightfully includes the butler. Ahem. Friends, despite the fact that these women are TOTAL STRANGERS to Beatrice, she finds strength facing down her foes (Percy, Fenella and Kit) by imagining what they would do in her shoes. Um. BEATRICE. YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY WOULD DO. AND NEITHER DO WE. BECAUSE THEY’RE STRANGERS!!!!! Look, I like that these women (and the butler) are good to Beatrice, but what about actually getting to know them before assigning them these badass, saintly qualities? The tone is sickeningly saccharine sweet, and while I can just Let it go in a Disney movie, I can’t ignore these glaring character potholes in a full length novel.
Beatrice and Jack are lovely, damaged souls who make each other happy and support each other through thick and thin. They’re kind and nice and sort of blah, and I wish we had spent more time with them getting to know each other, and less time with random secondary characters who do little to advance the narrative. If you like novels that are predictable and sticky sweet, this might be the one for you. If you don’t – it won’t be