REVIEW: That Perfect Someone by Johanna Lindsey
Dear Ms. Lindsey,
Despite being one of the grand dames of romance, I haven't ever read one of your books before. I don't know why. It's just worked out that way. When I picked up That Perfect Someone, I was going into it blind but excited about the story based on the blurb. It seemed like that kind of book I generally enjoy reading and I did not realize until later that it was part of a series about the Malory/Anderson family. You should know that I have a troubled relationship with sequels and series, and perhaps that tainted my reading experience. But nonetheless, there were some problems that go beyond this book just being part of a family saga.
Julia Miller is the daughter of a Cit, a man who has made his fortune in trade. Yet, unlike the other daughters of the nouveau riche merchant classes, Julia does not lack for invitations or connections to the ton. She is already considered one of them and has been since birth. Why? For the simple fact that she has been engaged since her infancy to one Richard Allen, second son of the Earl of Manford. This, along with her wealth, has given her a certain cache in society. Not that Julia cares about titles and other such nonsense, particularly, if that connection to a title comes with an unhappy marriage to someone she hates. For unfortunately, neither she nor her betrothed can stand each other and have been nothing but against their impending union from the very moment they met.
Richard and Julia loathe each other and have since their first ill-fated meeting when she was five and he was ten. Their displeasure has been violently expressed ever since in a series of altercations, often verbal, sometimes physical. He dangled her over the edge of a balcony once, and she broke his nose. For whatever reason, they can't see each other without lashing out, fists and tongues flying, until damage has been done. Fortunately for Julia's peace of mind, Richard ran away nine years ago, presumably leaving the country rather than suffer being forced to marry her. Unfortunately, his father, the Earl, insists on maintaining the marriage contract, convinced that Richard will one day return and enable the Earl through the marriage to have access to Julia's money. Despite the best efforts of her father and her lawyers, Julia Miller still finds herself engaged to a man she does not like even a little bit, a man who has not been seen or heard from in nearly a decade. She is tired of waiting for a groom that will never come and plans to have her roving fiancé declared dead in order to break the contract.
Meanwhile, Richard Allen has been playing pirate on the high seas these last nine years using a bad French accent and the name Jean-Paul, which puts me less in mind of a pirate than a waiter from an old Folger's coffee commercial. L'addition, s'il vous-plait, Jean-Paul! His return to England is prompted by his friend, Gabrielle and her new husband, Drew Anderson. These two love-birds are visiting Drew's brother, Boyd the recently married in London. Apparently all these happy marriages called for a family reunion. Richard has decided to tag along so he can see the woman he loves one more time. Too bad for him that he's in love with another man's wife, namely Georgina Malory, wife of the notorious James Malory and some kind of kin to either Drew or Gabrielle. I really didn't get the relationships between the characters. I thought a chart would help, but there was no chart. They are all related, though. So very, very related both to each other and previous books. Obviously, they all had to make cameo appearances either in person or in reference.
But the story of Richard and Julia really starts at the ball given by Lady Eden for Georgina Malory. Richard, having been warned off Gerogina by her husband, simply must see her. He loves her, you see. Or so he thinks. So despite the fact that his father might catch him and force him to marry Julia, not to mention the more likely possibility that James Malory is going to beat the crap out of him, he must attend. Conveniently, the ball is a masquerade so it will provide the perfect opportunity for him to stare lovingly at Georgina from a distance, thus mitigating the chances that he might be caught.
As it happens, Julia is a friend of Georgina's, and she, too, attends the ball. When she notices murder in James Malory's eyes, she simply must know who it is he is staring at and why. So she hunts down the offending party through deduction and meets Richard, whom she does not recognize. He, being in disguise, pretends he is French (Jean-Paul!) and they end up sharing a kiss. But dash it all! just before Richard can make his escape, James Malory catches him and beats him up. This leaves poor Richard with a battered face, while the kiss has left Julia smitten with the mysterious Frenchman. The lack of recognition on both parts does not last long, and by the next day the two affianced young people have realized who, to their horror, the other really is. Wackiness then ensues, with Richard risking being shackled to Julia by taking off to the country to visit his brother. Then there is some kidnapping and a sea chase and a ridiculous scheme concocted to try and destroy the marriage contract binding them together. And of course, they end up falling in love due to their adventures together and all that hate turns to passion.
Being that this is part of a series the first three chapters are spent catching up any readers who have forgotten the shenanigans of the previous couples featured in this story. Since I hadn't read any of the books before this one, I was both annoyed and grateful for the on-last-week's-episode style of prose you employed at the beginning of the book. Every secondary character is someone from another book, down to the chick that is only there long enough to throw a ball in honor of Georgina Malory-‘incidentally, why this ball being thrown in her honor? Has she done something of note? Had birthday? It was never explained even though everyone else's back-story was continually alluded to throughout the book. I suppose it is because everyone loves Georgina. Why they do, was left up to the reader's imagination.
But that is neither here nor there.
The central plot is one of my favorite types of stories. Not just enemies to lovers, but childhood enemies to lovers. I love that one and I don't see it nearly enough. I enjoyed the scenes of Richard and Julia romping and fighting best, both in their present and in their past. That was the best part of the book. The bit about them trying to get the marriage contract from the abusive and evil, Earl of Manford, was a lot less interesting. Because, of course, the villain of the piece is Richard's father, a petty, vicious and cruel man for no apparent reason whatsoever. That is not to say that you don't give a reason. You do. It's just a really lame one.
Which brings me to my main criticism: reading this book was pretty much the textual version of watching "Days of Our Lives" but not as satisfying. Back in the late 90's, I would watch Days religiously. I don't know if you ever did, but if so perhaps you will recall the whole plot where Kristen found out she was Stefano DiMera's daughter? No? And she came up with this cockamamie scheme to keep John Black from leaving her for Marlena by using Baby Elvis, the son of her doppelganger Susan? Nothing? Doesn't ring a bell? And some other stuff happened but I won't get into that. That's not the point. The point is that it was a wondrous mess of a plotline, which even has a Wikipedia entry and it got me addicted to "Days." So even now, a decade later, sometimes I still watch. I turn it on and am immediately lost and confused. As with most soap operas you always enter in medias res, and as such you can never really know what's going on or who anybody is. Linear time has no meaning in soap operas. Different actors play the same role. Sometimes they switch them out mid-episode! Nine-year old children disappear to whatever boarding school or dude ranch soap opera characters send their kids when they are too old to be cute and too young to be plot points, only to come back fifteen years older than they should be and sporting a nickname. Sometimes people get resurrected from the dead or possessed by Satan. You just never know.
And Stefano DiMera is always the man behind the plot. Even when he's not the villain, he will turn out to be the villain's father. Not only that, but nobody knows what Stefano's motivation for villainy actually is. Why? because it doesn't matter. He's the villain, thus he does villainous things. I bring this up because the Earl of Manford was that villain. Had he turned out to be Stefano DiMera's son, I wouldn't be surprised. Why was he so villainous and stubborn about the marriage contract? Well, I won't spoil the reason but it was just as nonsensical and confusing as any of Stefano's motives. The Earl was mean for no other reason than because the plot required him to be mean. Just as the plot required there to be some question as to whether or not Richard was even his son. I was hugely surprised that James Malory didn't turn out to be Richard's real father, since he was everyone else's . . . or at the very least their uncle, despite the fact that he didn't seem old enough. What matter are things like time, when drama is at work. Maybe James Malory is Stefano DiMera.
But it wasn't just motive-less villains and questionable parentage that reminded me of "Days." The previously mentioned insufferable number of characters trotted out from past books was so much like a soap opera that I found myself annoyed. Every third paragraph felt like a reference to another book, and every appearance of an old face offering advice, good cheer and help, an allusion to another romance. They were such a jolly lot, wholly indistinguishable from one another and as interchangeable as the aforementioned actors playing the same role. In this case the role was either plucky, beautiful heroine or charming alpha male of means. For a story that is supposedly set in the Regency, I couldn't help feeling that the prose and the characters ought to have put the setting and time period somewhere in the United States between 1950 and 1960, certainly not anywhere near Regency era Britain. For example:
Georgina stood up and approached her husband. "James" was all she said.
He turned his scowl on her. "Are you out of your mind, George? Think I don't know all this concern is for the blighter who lusts after you? I'll help him to his grave and no further."
Georgina ignored that and reminded him, "You also have the faster ship."
"A crewless ship," he was quick to point out. "It would take days to round-‘"
"You can have my crew," Drew cut in. "Gabby and I will go with you, of course, since Richard is our friend."
"You're not captaining my ship, Yank," James warned his brother-in-law.
"No, of course not."
But Drew was grinning as he came around the sofa to sit next to his wife. Those two at least considered the matter settled. Julia wasn't so sure yet. But then she watched Georgina hug her husband.
I don't know what is about the prose that feels anachronistic, and yet not exactly contemporary. I tried to choose a quote that shows what I mean, but it was hard. I think it is a flavor that I got from the whole rather than simply one single section. Whatever it was, it seemed far removed from the period in which it was ostensibly set.
And really, Ms. Lindsey as you have been writing historical romances since literally before I was born, you should really have bothered at some point in the last thirty years to look up the way British titles work. Could you not be bothered? Was there some natural disaster, a war perchance that prevented you from going to the library? For god's sake, madam, with the internet you don't even have that excuse anymore. It isn't just you. I'm sick of this in historicals, all together. It smacks of laziness. It isn't as if I'm asking authors to plumb the depths of the National Archives, reading old letters and journals that have not seen the light of day in nigh on a century. I'm not even as picky about historical details as some others are. I don't, for example, get my drawers in a twist when heroines wear drawers long before anybody actually did wear drawers. But holy jackanapes! it does not take that much attention to detail to find out that the second son of an Earl would not be Lord anything unless he somehow inherited a title of his own. Or that in the period you write in, people who had titles would be referred to by those titles. Am I supposed to take the fact that everyone is known by their first names, regardless of rank, title or intimacy, to be the sign of these people's wonderfulness? That this total disregard for something has simple as nomenclature is somehow a symbol for what a cool and roguish group I'm dealing with, rather than laziness on your part? As I write this, I am googling DeBretts. It took me all of ten seconds to discover that they have a website, of all things, and gigantic tab entitled "Forms of Address" a tab that renders any excuse for this lack of knowledge moot.
The willy, nilly use of names and titles was not the only problem pointing to total lack of historical accuracy. As far as I was concerned, the entire book had the same attention to detail and fact as a 1950's period film. I kept picturing Charlton Heston in the role of James Malory, being ruthlessly American and macho despite plot, period, and setting. And while there is a certain charm to watching Charlton Heston attempt to navigate the role of Andrew Jackson opposite a bewigged Yule Brenner, it is not a charm that lasts long. Sadly, this book suffered from a similar disability. You see, the point of accurate historical detail is not to prove that the author is smart or able to do research. The point of details, such as nomenclature, is to give depth to the story and characters. It is not about being realistic, but about creating dimension. So while there was as much charm in watching the exploits of these characters as they fought on sea and on land, as in watching Charlton Heston not realizing he's playing a gay character (Ben-Hur), it was not a charm that lasted long.
As for Richard and Julia, the hero and heroine of this novel . . . well, I read this book three days ago and nothing about them sticks in my mind. Not hair color, not eye color, nor any other distinguishing characteristics. I can't remember if I was rooting for them or not. I probably was but I can't remember the love scenes, so there you go. I have the book right next to me and I guess I could re-read parts and refresh my own memory as to anything pertinent . . . However, it strikes me that if I can't remember anything about them three days after I've finished the book, then perhaps that says more than I ever could about this novel. Usually, I remember plot details to such an annoying extent that even years and numerous alcoholic beverages later, I can find books whose title and author I've forgotten, and based only on minor plot details. Nothing about either character stood out in my mind so much that a good dose of gin and an over-the-counter sleeping pill wouldn't erase it. I think I would have had trouble remembering this book to ever find it again, if it was not written by such a big name author.
That said, while I was reading the book I enjoyed it. Or at least, I enjoyed it enough to finish it, which perhaps is not quite the same thing. If I was recommending this to a person who had already read the other books in the saga, I would perhaps give it a C+ because like many later books in a series about members of a family, it suffers from banality more than anything else. If I were to recommend this book to someone who had never read anything in this series before, as was the case with me, I would have to give it a C- for being wholly indistinguishable and rather unmemorable.