We all have an author or two whom we used to read religiously – she published it, we bought and read it, and for the most part we enjoyed what we read. But somewhere along the way we changed, or she changed, or both, and the reading experience between author and reader went south. I’m sorry to report that this is exactly the case for me with Catherine Coulter. The Courtship is the third book in a row by this author that’s been a real letdown for me.
Spencer Heatherington, a charter member of the Too-Insufferable-to-Live-Hero club, overhears a conversation between his friend Alexandra Sherbrooke (of The Sherbrooke Bride, still one of my favorite romances) and a mysterious woman, on the subject of discipline. Determined to meet and bed the female who seems to have a firm grasp of the subject, he discovers that she’s Lady Helen Mayberry, beautiful and eccentric daughter of an extremely eccentric earl. In spite of his resolution to wait until he’s at death’s door to take a wife, Spencer discovers that Helen’s the only woman for him, and he sets about seducing her, hoping he can get her out of his system before he does something rash, like marry her.
The imperious Helen owns an inn, King Edward’s Lamp, and she’s hot on the trail of a mystery attached to her business. The lamp may very well have been a real item in days of yore, a magic talisman brought to England from the Crusades, and Helen has come into possession of a scrap of writing that contains tantalizing clues as to its whereabouts. She’s learned that Spencer was once a scholar of Middle Eastern languages and she decides he can help her decipher the message. Can Helen resist her attraction to him while they unravel the mystery? And just who would want the lamp badly enough to kill for it?
All the things I used to be willing to overlook in Coulter’s writing are present here. Spencer is an arrogant, chauvinistic pig of a hero (he actually says, “Freedom for a woman, Helen, is being led by a man like me”), who of course suffers from the evidently inevitable Coulteresque fascination with large-breasted women. Helen has turned her inn and the surrounding village into her own little fiefdom, where she blithely imposes her brand of discipline, including locking miscreants, stripped naked, in the stocks for public humiliation. The villagers have no problem with this; on the contrary, they seem to enjoy it, and that strikes me as just a little twisted.
The dialogue is stilted and unnatural-sounding to my ear. Apparently the characters believe they have to articulate even the most inane thoughts to each other, and the result is ridiculous conversations filled with pointless remarks – I lost count of the times Spencer told Helen that he was “thirty-three years old, and a damned man, by God.” There’s a ludicrous subplot surrounding Helen’s maid Teenie and her reluctance to commit to either of her two suitors because of their names. And Helen’s father stumbles around in a wine-induced fog, doing nothing but get in the way while he dreams up yet another bizarre champagne concoction.
The only thing that kept me going was trying to figure out who killed one of the minor characters – not because I particularly cared for that character, but because I wanted to cheer the villain for dispatching yet another irritating person. Alas, the murderer turned out to be just as tediously annoying as the rest of the cast, so even that small satisfaction had its price. If you’ve hung in there with Catherine Coulter all these years and liked last year’s Mad Jack, you’ll probably enjoy The Courtship a lot more than I did.