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REVIEW: You Only Love Once by Caroline Linden

Dear Ms. Linden,

My book log shows that the last book I read of yours was What a Gentleman Wants, at the end of 2006. That doesn’t seem right; I was sure I’d read one of your books more recently than that. I suspect I’m confusing you with another author (maybe Carolyn Jewel?), but in any case, starting this book I had the strange feeling that results from not quite knowing what to expect from an author, simply because you can’t remember what you thought of their previous work. Call it book amnesia. It’s not quite the same as never having read an author before – it’s not quite a clean slate, as would be the case with a new author.

You Only Love Once by Caroline LindenThe story opens in France during the revolution. An aristocratic couple are about to be taken away, likely to the guillotione, and the wife’s devoted maid makes ready to spirit away their infant daughter to London and safety. This passage, and later reflections on the French Revolution made me question (not for the first time) the anti-French, anti-revolution bias in historical romance. It’s a bias that has interested me for a while, mostly because I’m not sure what is at the root of it. Is it a general disdain of the French common to…most everyone but the French? Is it based on the weirdly pro-British slant in historical romance (I say weird because it’s usually American authors writing these books)? Is it based on actual disdain for the bloodthirstiness of the revolution? I can get behind the last sentiment, at least. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert, but certainly, what little I know does not make me sympathetic to the excesses of what was, after all, known as “the terror.” But those excesses were, I believe, at least in part a response to a corrupt and unjust system, one that was guilty of many of its own abuses. You wouldn’t know it by the way the French aristrocrats are portrayed in this book and other historical romances; usually they are virtuous or hapless victims of vicious and greedy zealots.

I suppose that’s neither here nor there. It’s just something I’m curious about.

Anyway…after the opening, the story jumps forward almost 30 years. Our baby is all grown up, goes by the name of Angelique Martand, and works in London as a spy and assassin for a British spymaster named Stafford. Angelique is given a new assignment, one that she’s reluctant to accept – she’s supposed to assist a brash American sea captain, Nate Avery, in locating Jacob Dixon, a British subject who embezzled money in New York and absconded back to his native land. Nate hopes to recover the embezzled funds and return Dixon to America in order to restore the good name of a revolutionary war hero who once saved Nate’s father’s life.

Angelique has a stormy first meeting with Nate – sparks fly, as they are wont to do in this type of story. She doesn’t like that she’ll be saddled with an American yokel, and Nate, though possessed of more sangfroid, is obviously surprised that he’s to receive assistance from a woman. Privately, Stafford gives Angelique an additional assignment: she is to assassinate Dixon before Nate can put him on the ship for America. Stafford doesn’t care if Nate recovers the money or not, but he wants Dixon elemented. Angelique doesn’t know why, but she’s worked for Stafford long enough to trust him and his motives. Still, she doesn’t like killing, and this simply adds another distasteful layer to an unpleasant job.

The story develops in a fairly conventional way: Nate is intrigued by Angelique and she comes to be drawn to him as well in spite of her first impression. He is, of course, more than just a rough American yokel – that was simply a facade he donned for his own convenience. They work together to track Jacob Dixon, and in the process start to fall in love. But Angelique’s secret assignment – as well as her shame over the things she has done in her job – stand in the way of lasting happiness.

There are absolutely  things to like in You Only Love Once - a competent (and sexually experienced) heroine, who mostly manages to carry herself with a certain confidence that is refreshing to see in a romance heroine. The prose is decent, and Nate is a likeable hero – he has a certain laid-back charm that makes him a nice foil for the more intense Angelique. I like the relatively rare romance when the heroine has Issues and the hero doesn’t – usually it’s just the hero who is tortured, or both of them are (and I like those romances too, but one of these is nice for a change).

Somehow, though, the book ended up being less than the sum of its parts for me. I think the problem centers around Angelique – I never really understood her transformation from orphaned French aristocrat to spy and assassin. Little is told about her childhood, except that once she and surrogate mother, Melanie (the maid from the prologue), arrived in England, they were assisted for a while by a relative of Angelique’s. When the relative died, they  suffered some hard times and Angelique had to go to work in a dress shop. It was there that she was recruited to spy, and supposedly she is motivated by a hatred of the chaos and death brought on by revolution. Somehow, I didn’t quite buy it. It’s not that it wasn’t a good reason; it’s just that Angelique’s character never really came alive for me in a way that made me believe she had a true passion for what she was doing. Perhaps that’s in part because by the time we meet her, Angelique has lost that passion and is considering retirement. She’s tired of the deception, and she dreads the killing. I guess I was ambivalent about her ambivalence – while I appreciate a kickass heroine, I think I was also judging her differently than I would’ve a hero in the same profession. Some of her choices were questionable and while she ultimately realized this, it made it harder to respect her. It’s difficult to articulate well without giving away spoilers, but I recognize that part of the problem is my desire for a heroine who is as strong as all of those spy heroes, but ultimately, I end up judging such heroines by different criteria.

Speaking of the strength of Angelique as a heroine, I found myself  wishing the book could have allowed her to be in charge as the investigation went forward. She was the professional, after all. Nate is tough. smart and competent; he was raised on his father’s ships and has spent time on the American frontier. That’s fine. But he also turns out to be unexpectedly good at the sort of thing that is supposed to have been Angelique’s forte – sneaking up on people and coming up with cunning plans (tm Blackadder). To be fair, Nate’s mastery over Angelique is more subtle than I’ve seen in other books featuring intrepid spy heroines (I’m looking at you, Ice Storm), but I still wish we could have seen her really running things, as would be totally reasonable given her professional background. Again, this is probably my issue to a large degree – I appreciate having a different heroine, but I’m no doubt watching her more closely and perhaps judging her more harshly.

Ultimately, You Only Love Once will probably work better for some readers than it did for me – as I’ve said, the ingredients for a very good book were there, but somehow they just didn’t come together for me as a reader. My grade is a B-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

15 Comments

  1. Stephanie C.
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 11:46:39

    I didnt like this book at all and couldn’t finish it. It started great but I didnt get drawn into the book or the characters.

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  2. KA
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 12:31:35

    Your blog treats readers to three opinions and all three piqued my interest. Your opening paragraph offered a fresh perspective about “book amnesia.” It made me think how I may perceive an author's current work if I hadn't read the author in sometime.

    I commend Caroline for stepping out of historical romance box by offering us a strong heroine. And I like the idea of an American hero with whom she collaborates, clashes, shares chemistry, and possibly backstabs (if she assassinate Dixon).

    But I was most intrigued by your question of the “anti-French, anti-revolution bias in historical romance.” Indeed, the “weirdly pro-British slant in historical romance (I say weird because it's usually American authors writing these books)?” is a little curious. American readers seemingly embrace Regency historicals despite actual history. Britain unjustly impressed American mariners, burned the White House, and attacked New Orleans. Meanwhile, the French assisted the US with our own revolution. The French Revolution was somewhat inspired by the US’s revolution and the same social injustices that lead the US to break away from Britain in the first place. Perhaps bloodthirstiness and unjustness of the Terror helps American readers and authors to forget that France, not Britain, was a US ally in this historical period.

    You also asked, “Is it a general disdain of the French common to…most everyone but the French? “ I paused to think for a few minutes on the source of this disdain. Even though the US was allied with France for two World Wars, and France controlled one sector of Berlin during the Cold War, France grew distance from its allies. In fact, France withdrew its military support to NATO in 1955, forcing NATO to relocate several headquarters units to Belgium and even the Netherlands (http://www.nato.int/shape/news/2003/history/h030722.htm).

    I have lived twice in the Benelux area while associated with NATO. Both times gave me the opportunity to observe European dynamics. Since NATO is an alliance of countries that have been “friend-emies” for a thousand years, it is natural for stereotypes to emerge. And France has the stereotype of being difficult, standoffish, and snobbish.

    That being said, a friend just returned from France. Her Frech relatives were part of the Resistance and remain grateful to the Allies for liberating their country. This appreciation is can been seen throughout Normandy as they memorialized the D-Day landing and lovingly care for our fallen at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. And let's not forget that the French love Jerry Lewis and host EuroDisney – two great American icons!

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  3. Janine
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 13:13:51

    Perhaps bloodthirstiness and unjustness of the Terror helps American readers and authors to forget that France, not Britain, was a US ally in this historical period.

    I think the facts that far more Americans are of British descent than of French descent, and that we share the same language with the British, have something to do with it as well.

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  4. cories
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 13:58:03

    The problem I had with the book was that leap from baby to spy, too. I also wanted to see more of Prince’s inventions; it was like having Q without seeing the end results in action. However, I liked the book overall because of Angelique’s retirement scene (perhaps the reason I read the whole book – just to see how she was going to get out of the profession).

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  5. LauraB
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 14:38:29

    I blame the Scarlet Pimpernel for the pro-British slant you bring up. :)

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  6. Jennie
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 17:47:06

    I was thinking about this some more and I tend to agree with Janine that a lot of it may be the common language and more common ancestry that leads Americans to identify with the British more, regardless of what one’s personal ancestry is (I have both English and French blood, among other things).

    I think with historical romance it’s also the tendency to simplify complex dynamics into something that’s a bit more palatably black-and-white for the average reader. Britain and France were pretty much always at odds throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, when most historical romances are set. So in order for the British to be “the good guys”; the French have to be the bad guys.

    This doesn’t so much bother me as bemuse me in most cases, though I actually am a bit bugged when one of the characters is French and is working against his or her own country. That’s a little distasteful to me. And of course it’s always better if the characters have some depth; even if the author portrays the English as on the side of right, it’s a turn off if all of the French characters are one-dimensional villains. Even with a group that is not traditionally marginalized, ethnic stereotypes just aren’t that appealing to me.

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  7. TKF
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 20:13:33

    I’m so sick of spy books.

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  8. Merrian
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 23:47:57

    I agree with laura @ 5 it is all the Scarlat Pimpernel’s fault and perhaps we can also add in Charles Dicken’s a Tale of Two Cities as having like Heyer become templates for the approach to the revolution in France

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  9. cead
    Sep 15, 2010 @ 12:52:02

    I’ve noticed that when one of the leads is American, there’s usually a lot of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) “Americans are so much better than these silly Brits” messages running through the book, even if the conclusion has the couple settling in the UK. My sense is that the pro-British tendencies tend to dissipate if there are actual Americans in the book, rather than just the book being set in a world where America exists.

    I’d totally read historicals that were pro-French, or set in France, or had French leads, &c. In particular, I’ve have always been kind of baffled at the paucity of French heroes. Whenever one of the leads isn’t English, it’s usually the heroine, and this confuses me. Even if the story were set in England, there’s a lot of potentially interesting conflict involving, say, recently impoverished aristo male emigres, not to mention all those dancing masters. (Plus, there are at least as many hot Frenchmen as there are hot Englishmen, and they speak French, and they have delicious accents when they speak English…)

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  10. Caroline
    Sep 15, 2010 @ 13:55:11

    Wow. It’s always surprising to me what other people see in my books.

    First, the hero is an American (from Boston) because I think American guys (from Boston) are hot. My plan is to keep adding more and more American characters to my books until no one notices they are actually American historicals, which I would love to write but not many publishers want to publish. But French guys are also hot. And British guys. And Spanish guys. They all have sexy accents, imo.

    Second, the heroine’s feelings are very strongly against the Reign of Terror, not anti-France or even anti-French-Revolution. I’m not a scholar of French history, but I do know the Terror killed several thousands of people, most of whom were ordinary folks and not just wealthy aristocrats. Even Americans freaked out about the violence of the Terror, which they feared would spread to their country just fresh off a revolution.

    Third, the heroine is never working against France, which would seem rather traitorous, but against internal bad elements in England. The book is set in 1820, by which time the war with France is long over anyway. And really, it’s the English who are the bad guys in this story.

    I’m not posting to be defensive (which is not the case at all–Jennie, thank you very much for a thoughtful review!) but rather to prevent any misconceptions about *my* story, as opposed to general trends in romance novels or fiction in general. And I hope anyone who decides to try the book enjoys it, because life is too short to read books you dislike.

    Thanks again.
    ~Caroline

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  11. Ridley
    Sep 15, 2010 @ 14:17:47

    @Caroline:

    Of course you think Bostonians are hot, you homer ;-).

    Anyways, I always assumed the bias towards England was because France was ultimately a loser, and that messes with the HEA. The Reign of Terror, no matter how sensible the revolution’s roots were, was a senseless bloodbath. They sent scores of nuns to the guillotine, for goodness sake. No way in hell am I sympathizing with a bloody revolutionary who thinks shit like that is prudent.

    Since most historicals are set in the Regency period, now you’re looking at the Napoleonic Wars, which we all know France lost. Making one or both of the characters sympathize with France sets them up for disappointment, and disappointment and HEA aren’t friends.

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  12. Caroline
    Sep 15, 2010 @ 15:53:47

    @Ridley: Wouldn’t be worth living here otherwise.

    Some wars seem romantic even in defeat. The best example I can think of is the Jacobite uprising of 1745. But mostly, yeah, losing sucks.

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  13. Cinnamon Life
    Sep 15, 2010 @ 19:19:37

    I believe the anti-French bias in romance novels stems from several factors.

    1. Austen and Heyer established the Regency as the traditional setting for romance novels.

    2. France’s history for much of the late 18th/early to mid 19th century is pretty depressing. I don’t think American readers like either the Terror or the Napoleonic Wars. We do not appreciate mass be-headings or emperors much.

    3. It is challenging enough to get British English to sound right. Capturing the French language might be more than most writers are willing to take on.

    As to a French hero, I know of one: Etienne from Forbidden by Susan Johnson. The book is set in the 1890s Paris mostly. This was actually the first romance novel I ever read at the tender age of 15. If you are familiar with it you’ll understand how it was quite an eye-opener for me!

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  14. Jennie
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 01:41:13

    @Cead – I’ve also noticed that Americans are portrayed as superior (generally in their egalitarian principles) to the Brits, especially in contrast to the aristocracy. I am assuming that’s because most of the writers in question are American.

    @Caroline – I do understand, certainly, being anti-Terror – maybe it explains the slant in your book.

    I was getting a bit off on a tangent on romances in general (as I tend to do). The Terror was bad, but was it so much worse than slavery in America or the treatment of the Irish during the Potato Famine or the way they used to hang children in England for minor offenses (when did they stop doing that?). My point was simply that the French get an unusually bad rap in historical romances, and I don’t think it’s entirely deserved.

    @Cinnamon Life – that happens to be my favorite Susan Johnson book!

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  15. Ridley
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 09:50:11

    @Jennie:

    Um, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any romances with a main character who was pro-slavery, anti-Irish or gung ho for hanging minors. Any pre-Civil War American historical I’ve read makes a point of demonizing slave owners, I’ve never read any story that showed English landowners in Ireland in a positive light and reformer characters railing against the draconian penal code in England are a dime a dozen in historicals.

    I think the French of that period were unsympathetic, and deservedly so, chopping heads off willy-nilly as an apertif before trying to conquer the continent.

    They show up a lot more in Victorians as sympathetic characters, since they’d moved past their a-hole phase at that point.

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