Husband-and-wife writing team May McGoldrick’s latest romance, The Rebel, was a difficult one for me to grade. On the good side, it had a terrific hero and heroine. On the not-so-good side, it had a supporting cast so loathsome that I kept putting the book down in order to avoid them.
After a chance encounter with a London street waif, Sir Nicholas Spencer decides that he will dedicate his life to helping poor children, and that he needs a wife to help him. He hits the ton’s circuit of balls and parties and soon finds a woman he thinks is a suitable candidate, young Clara Purefoy, the daughter of an English magistrate in Ireland. Nicholas travels to Ireland with his mother and sister to visit Clara and her family, but before they can even reach the Purefoy estate, they encounter a group of Irish rebels threatening an unethical bishop. Nicholas gives chase and manages to unmask the leader, Egan, who to his surprise is a lovely woman.
Nicholas soon discovers there are more surprises in store when he reaches the Purefoy home and learns that Clara has a never-mentioned older sister Jane, the family pariah. Nicholas immediately recognizes her as Egan, but intrigued by the mysterious beauty dressed in black, he promises to keep her secret.
To his credit, Nicholas almost immediately realizes that he and the far-younger Clara have next to nothing in common, and he begins a quiet pursuit of Jane. Jane, of course, is suspicious and hesitant. She’s had a hellish life; as a teenager, she fell in love with one of her Irish playmates. They became lovers and planned to elope, but her young man was a rebel leader who was captured and executed – by Jane’s own father. Jane’s been in mourning and disgrace ever since, virtually ignored by her own family. This gives her fairly free reign to lead the local rebels. Unfortunately, Jane’s superficial mother can’t understand why Nicholas would not want her younger daughter and begins meddling. And the new magistrate in the area is dangerously close to finding out who Egan – a hero to the Irish people but at the top of the English most-wanted list – really is.
As you can probably tell, there’s a lot of stuff going on in this book – lots of subplots, lots of intrigue, lots of characters. For example, Jane’s not only a secret rebel leader but a brilliant painter, and every family member seems to be plotting either for or against Nick and Jane. Unfortunately, this takes some of the focus off Nick and Jane themselves, which is really too bad, because they’re a very likable pair. Nick is a caring, intelligent man who can see through Jane’s family, though his characterization as a notorious rake never rang true to me – he seemed far too cautious and thoughtful. Jane is a woman of immense strength and stubbornness who I found believable as a rebel legend.
The supporting cast, however, is not particularly well characterized. Clara in particular is problematic – she changes on a dime from being a sweet young thing quite possibly lacking the sense to come in out of the rain to a selfish, manipulative schemer, even though she’s not particularly interested in Nicholas. This might not be so annoying if Clara were just Jane’s sister, but she’s also the secondary heroine. I don’t want perfect protagonists, but I don’t want ones I can’t stand either. Jane’s mother is a social climber straight out of Romance Novel Central Casting. The hero and heroine from McGoldrick’s previous book The Promise make a prolonged appearance so we can see how insanely happy they are. Only Jane’s father managed to be convincing, as a hard-drinking jerk who loves his daughter but has no idea how to reach out to her.
A small but nagging element was diction. While I’m no stickler for historical accuracy, some of the language pulled me out of the story at times. I spent too much time wondering if eighteenth-century English subjects really referred to “the outdated prejudices of yesterday.”
Despite my complaints, this is really not a bad book. It’s just an overstuffed book. Less time with Jane’s family and more time with Jane and Nick would have made me a very happy reader.