Dear Laura London:
One of the most useful concepts I’ve learned from romance readers online is that of reader consent. Gypsy Heiress is in many respects similar to The Bad Baron’s Daughter, a book I loved. Both are old skool historical romances featuring a young heroine who’s essentially alone and unprotected; she becomes entangled with a powerful, ruthless man and is threatened by a dark villain. But what was fun in that story gave me serious unease in this one. The book lost my consent early on, when the heroine is threatened with rape; perhaps it’s because she is so genuinely helpless, so completely outclassed in every single way — alone, injured, poor, despised — and the rapist is so chillingly unconcerned. Although she is technically saved by the hero, it was done in such a way that I was still terrified for her; I found it hard to accept these two men as the hero and secondary hero of a romance.
It’s a shame, because the titular Liza, who discovers unexpectedly that she’s the heiress to a large English estate, is more interesting than the standard London historical heroine. She’s not so much youthfully naive as she is a fish out of water: having grown up with her Gypsy mother’s family, she finds the lifestyle of the Regency England ruling class pretty bizarre. Since I know virtually nothing about Romani culture, I googled details given in the book; it appears that considerable research was done, but important aspects of the culture have been glossed over or left out entirely. In that sense, you could say that it’s a romanticized portrayal. Liza, although a fairly down to earth person, also tends to flowery language in times of emotion, which is linked with her background: “To concede my love seemed as natural and guileless as the new leaf uncurling from its stem. It was a soft emotion, linked forever in the past with the dripping sands of time…” I really couldn’t say whether the book “gets it right,” overall. However, Liza genuinely feels like someone from another culture, one she quite naturally thinks is superior, and she’s realistically sensitive to slights and stereotypes about her heritage:
Betty made her own preparations for bed, clucking at my eccentric ways, and then knelt by her truckle bed and pointedly said her prayers aloud, enunciating each word in a clear, ringing tone, hoping, no doubt, that they would have a good effect on my heathen manners.
The book is gothic in tone, and Liza has her fair share of “had I but known” moments, but she’s not foolishly trusting. Although she falls for Lord Brockhaven, she doesn’t idealize him — in fact she fails to appreciate his protectiveness, thinking he sees her as a tool against the former heirs. Her confused feelings are expressed in dreams in which Brockhaven fluctuates between hero and villain.
You could argue that Brockhaven is an improvement on other London heroines. Of course he treats Liza like a child, but he’s trying to maintain an appropriate guardian/ward relationship, and with good reason. But he lacked the… coolness factor of other heroes, that might make his sins more forgivable. I warmed to him a little more when his sense of humor appeared, and when we learn the truth about his part in the almost-rape, but I still think Liza could have done better. Though I did enjoy their loves scenes (kisses only), especially one in which Liza is masked and incognito.
Most of the secondary characters didn’t help. The careless rapist of the beginning later becomes a concerned friend and appropriate mate, with no apparent change of heart. It’s just that he knows how to treat a “lady.” Other characters are entirely unpleasant, with none of the acerbic charm found in those of The Bad Baron’s Daughter. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book is Liza’s friendship with another curious and adventurous girl; naughty youthful hijinks ensue.
If I were grading only on my own feelings, I might give this a C-, but I don’t think it was bad, per se. It might work better for readers who enjoy a gothic feel more than I do, or who have less sensitive old skool triggers. C