Dear Author

REVIEW: Once in a Blue Moon by Penelope Williamson

Dear Ms. Williamson,

For my inaugural review for Dear Author, I thought it would be nice to review an old favorite (my thinking being that then I wouldn’t have to sharpen my claws right away).

Having been reminded of my fondness for "outsider" romances by a recent read (Meredith Duran’s excellent The Duke of Shadows), I thought of your 1995 romance, set in Cornwall at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Once in a Blue Moon is a sterling example of this type of pairing, and has long been one of my all-time favorite romances to boot.

Jessalyn Letty is just sixteen, red-haired, awkward and a bit of a wild child when she meets McCady Trelawny, the newest Earl of Caerhays. McCady has inherited the title following the deaths of his dissolute older brothers, and there are those who think that he is destined to go down the same path: gambling, drinking, whoring and ultimately, suicide.

But McCady has some unexpected dimensions. He is a rake and a hellion, yes, but he’s also an inventor, and when he comes to the village in Cornwall where Jessalyn lives with her grandmother, he is working on the creation of a steam engine.

In fact, Jessalyn and McCady first encounter each other when the latest iteration of his invention explodes; she is nearby and attempts a rather ham-handed rescue of him. From that moment on, the two are fascinated with each other, albeit reluctantly. The reluctance is especially strong on McCady’s part, since he is well aware that Jessalyn is too young, too innocent and too poor for him; McCady needs to marry money to fund his inventions and to avoid debtor’s prison.

The story sprawls over some 450 pages, as McCady and Jessalyn, meet, part, meet again and part again. In the meantime, Jessalyn grows up and is courted by a rival of McCady’s; McCady is forced to make some hard choices to save himself financially; both suffer shattering losses.

In picking up this book to refamiliarize myself in order to write this review, I was a little dismayed to flip through the pages and discover a number of passages that in retrospect strike me as a bit cheesy, melodramatic and clichéd. To wit:

He took a step toward her, and her breath left her chest in a low, keening moan. His mouth had taken on a ruthless slant, and the yellow sunbursts flared bright and hot in his eyes. He smelled of brandy now and a feral heat. A leashed violence seemed to shimmer in the air around him like heat waves off a smithy’s forge. As if he were a wild animal that had been caged too long and had gone suddenly mad from his captivity.

Okay; the snarky 2008 version of me wonders if McCady has had his rabies vaccinations.

But in thinking of your work as a whole, I am reminded that subtlety has never really been your strong suit, and in fact the histrionic sturm und drang was part of what made me love books like this one, Heart of the West and A Wild Yearning. Even the comparatively restrained The Passions of Emma contains some moments that leave me caught between laughter and swooning.

Don’t get me wrong; by and large your prose is not purple, and Once in a Blue Moon is no bodice-ripper. What is actually impressive about your writing is that your hero and heroine have so strong an emotional connection, and your writing has such emotional immediacy, the reader can believe that they feel just that strongly; that McCady can resemble "a wild animal" in his yearning for Jessalyn.

And while some of the prose is a bit overwrought, much of the dialogue between McCady and Jessalyn, especially early in the book, sparkles:

"You were gone so long I thought something had happened," she said. "I came down to look for you, and I got a trifle lost."

"No one can be a trifle lost." He was getting quite red in the face. Doubtless because he was hanging upside down. "You are either completely lost or you aren’t lost at all. Is this an innate talent you have for turning the simplest expeditions into unmitigated catastrophes, or do you have to practice at it?"

"Don’t be beastly. It isn’t nice."

His head disappeared from the hole.

"Lieutenant!"

"Don’t move-don’t you move a bloody inch. I’m coming to get you."

"Thank you, but-"

"Think nothing of it. An afternoon spent crawling through dark and slimy tunnels and hollering myself hoarse has always seemed the epitome of entertainment to me."

"Lieutenant. I have a baby."

His head reappeared. "How in the bloody hell can a virgin have a baby? And don’t tell me it was an immaculate conception; that story just won’t wash a second time."

"I didn’t have her, you silly goose. I found her. Here. Just now."

"Of course. It stands to reason that you would go looking for trouble and find a baby."

I appreciate that even your secondary characters have depth; the woman who for a time stands between McCady and Jessalyn is as much a victim of their circumstances as the hero and heroine are. And the villain is not mustache-twirlingly evil or depraved; he is, in the end, rather pathetic in his desperate attempts to steal what he can’t capture rightfully. There is also a rather cute, if slightly silly secondary romance between Jessalyn’s maid and McCady’s valet, a sort of reverse Beauty and the Beast (he is an Adonis; she is plain and scarred, in addition to being kind of charmingly hare-brained).

The time and place are well rendered; I got a real feel for Cornwall, with its rocky cliffs, dangerous mines and rakish smugglers. Once in a Blue Moon is also a very hot, sexy read, in my opinion, though of course tastes vary on that sort of thing.

Finally, this book has one of my favorite last lines ever – not because it’s clever or beautifully written, but because it conveys with elegant simplicity how far McCady and Jessalyn have come.

My 1996 grade would be an A+, but 2008 Jennie has to mark this down a bit for overwroughtness – I’ll give it an A-.

~Jennie

This book is currently out of print.

  • Publisher: Bantam (May 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0440614120
  • ISBN-13: 978-0440614128