This Perfect Kiss
As a reviewer, I aim to be fair. But true fairness implies a lack of context for each book and I doubt I am quite that impartial. I tend to read debuts with greater charity; I suspect I am harder on authors I’ve read and loved. Melody Thomas falls into the latter category. Her Donally family series is a favorite; its Match Made in Scandal, a DIK for me. When I read Ms. Thomas, I expect a neat plot, clever dialogue, and persuasive lovers. This Perfect Kiss was unsatisfactory on all three fronts.
The novel, a Scottish tale based loosely on the Cinderella motif, begins with a kiss between the illegitimate, half-American Christel Douglas and Camden, the earl of Carrick. He is a decorated British hero and she has crashed a ball held in his honor. Christel has loved Camden for years. She’s come to this ball to ask him to seduce her — in a few weeks time he’s to choose a bride from his class and she sees this night as her last chance to have, even if it’s just once, the man she loves. Christel, dressed in a golden mask, a golden dress she’s made, and golden slippers she’s sold her hair to buy, follows Camden out into the garden and the two kiss. As they embrace, servants call for Camden to rejoin the ball and the two then part without Camden knowing who she is.
Nine years later, as the now widowed Camden — he married Christel’s aristocratic cousin Saundra — boards his ship in London, planning to travel home to Scotland with his young daughter, his first mate tells him that a woman is on board and she claims to be Camden’s late wife’s cousin. The woman is, of course, Christel, whom Camden now knows is the girl he kissed all those years ago. Christel has spent the last nine years in America helping the Colonial cause. Christel tells Camden she returned because Saundra, who has been dead for almost two years, sent her a letter asking Christel to come and be the governess for Saundra’s and Camden’s daughter, Anna. (It’s a mystery who sent the letter.) Camden says he’d never hire a “colonial urchin” to care for his child. Christel says she appreciates his perspective and then asks him to take her with him back to Scotland. She longs to settle in the cottage her parents (her father, a lord, lived there in sin with her mother) left her and live a peaceful post-Revolutionary war life.
As I read This Perfect Kiss, I kept waiting to get pulled into the story. There are mysteries aplenty facing Camden and Christel when they return to Scotland. Why did Saundra throw herself to her death… or was she pushed? Who is trying to frame Camden as a traitor to the ruling British? Who is smuggling French goods and why? What roles did Camden, Christel, and those around them really play in the Revolutionary War? But none of these conundrums is especially intriguing and having so many of them is often confusing. It’s not overly hard to figure out who is behind much of the villainy and, when Ms. Thomas finally answers all the riddles she’s posed, it’s a hurried letdown.
Camden and Christel desire each other but don’t, for most of the novel, trust or treasure each other. They, like too many couples in historical romance, believe the disparity in their social stations poses too great a barrier to their relationship. This class-based trope so defines their pairing it weakens the believability of their love. When they make love for the first time, Christel literally leaves Camden asleep in her bed and goes to stare at her mother’s grave. When Camden comes to find her, she tells him their night together was a singular event — she is sure she and Camden can never live the ostracized life her parents did. I never felt their connection, nor did I trust their ability to transcend the differences between them.
The finest thing in This Perfect Kiss is its context. Ms. Thomas fills her book with fascinating facts about Scotland’s role in the Revolutionary War. Many Scots were on the side of the Americans and actively fought and/or spied against the British. She does a great job of showing the connections between smuggling and the Revolutionary War. Ms. Thomas makes her characters’ actions fit the time in which they lived in ways that are interesting and further her plot. The history part of this historical romance is excellent.
When I finished This Perfect Kiss, I pondered why I found the tale lacking. The writing is excellent; the context, strong; and the characters, faceted. I decided the problem lies in the lovers themselves. I never felt Christel and Camden belonged together. When they interacted, both physically and verbally, it seemed muted. At the beginning of the book, as they stand in the garden, Camden tells Christel he knows nothing about her – she’s masked and completely out of context for him. She recites a list of poetically haphazard things: she loves “the way the air smells in spring …cold milk with warm bread… roses and summertime.” Her words reveal nothing about who she specifically is and yet Camden always remembers them, even quoting them back to her almost a decade later. This shallow awareness of each another permeates the book. Even as they found their HEA, I wasn’t sure either really knew the other.
Have I been too hard on Ms. Thomas? Maybe. But I know she can write a better book than The Perfect Kiss.