The Last Heiress
Anyone who reads my reviews probably knows I’m a sucker for historicals set outside the usual Regencyish fantasyland. However, no amount of fantastic setting can save a story that just isn’t told well. And that’s the problem with The Last Heiress. The last gasp of the Confederacy makes for a fascinating setting, but idiot characters flouncing around just don’t make a compelling read.
So, what do I mean by idiot characters? Well, the first and greatest one we meet is Miss Amanda Dunn, heiress to a manufacturing fortune in Lancashire, England. In order to stay prosperous, the family mill needs to restore its shipping with American cotton factors because the mills can’t run if they don’t have raw materials. Mr. Dunn has planned for one of his more experienced managers to travel to North Carolina in an attempt set up a supply line in spite of the ongoing American Civil War.
So far, so good. It’s risky, but given the economic pressures on the mill, makes some sense. Then Amanda flounces in. She insists that she will be the one to go to America and that she will go by herself because she doesn’t want the manager crimping her style. Um….yeah. And then comes the amazing part – Amanda actually gets her way. Never mind that there’s a war going on, or that the mill manager actually has some experience and perhaps more of a clue about how to do business with the cotton factors, or that the 19th century wasn’t exactly a time of enlightened ideas about young women in business. Nope, the owner’s daughter is setting sail with her maid on a mission to save the family business. Oh, and she’s also going to restore ties with her sister who alienated the family by eloping with an American planter.
Amanda hasn’t actually spent much time working in the business but apparently that’s okay because she reads up on things before leaving for North Carolina. She starts off by staying with her sister and brother-in-law and trying to get their assistance with her plan. Somehow she’s surprised that they don’t take her 100% seriously. By this point, Amanda was starting to give me a major headache and I wasn’t sure how much of her curl-tossing, flouncing negotiations I could take.
And then, of course, we have Amanda’s sister Abigail and her husband Jackson Henthorne. Abigail never really leapt off the page for me, but Jackson is a pompous jerk. He’s pretty much your stereotypical racist slave owner who expects everyone under his roof to keep up appearances and abide by his rules. Oh, and in addition to his racial attitudes, he’s pretty snobby as well, so you can imagine how he reacts when Amanda takes up with the hero, a poor white grocer working hard to better his lot in life.
And speaking of the hero, Nathaniel Cooper does seem like a pretty decent guy. Growing up poor in the mountains before coming to Wilmington and opening his small grocery, he doesn’t really have much in common with Amanda, but the two somehow fumble their way into a courtship anyway. Their scenes together in the first portion of the book felt somewhat awkward and the cringeworthy ways in which Henthorne tries to humiliate Nate don’t really help. This does smooth out somewhat in the second half of the book, but I have to admit that by then, I just couldn’t make myself care very much.
In addition to the awkwardness of the romance, I have to say that part of my issue with this book is that it not only failed to meet my expectations, but it ended up being something less than advertised. The promotional materials referred to the characters confronting the similarity of slavery with the horrible conditions imposed on millworkers in England. These are huge issues to grapple with, so I was very curious to see how the characters would handle it. Um…yeah. Issues of slavery and worker exploitation do get some mention from time to time, but it’s far from the most significant portion of the book’s action and Nate is hardly the “secret Yankee sympathizer who will stop at almost nothing to bring about freedom for those who live under subjugation” described on the blurb. Instead we are treated to endless rounds of Amanda’s flouncing, the somewhat humdrum courtship with Nate, and the Henthorne family somehow living it up antebellum-style in 1864. In some ways, that last one made me roll my eyes the most. Up until close to the end of the book, we get only the faintest recognition that there has been a war going on for quite some time and it’s not exactly going the South’s way.
As I finished The Last Heiress, I did end it with a sigh of regret. Not sadness that the book had come to a close, but more frustration that such a promising-sounding book didn’t live up to its potential after all.