Top critical review
First story 3 *, second story 2 *, third story 4 *
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 13, 2016
The first two stories suffer from ridiculous rushed plots. Everything happens too quickly and with too little effort. In the first story the leads fall in love about a month after being forced into marriage (a month in which the man spent 3 weeks apart from his wife and didn't write to her either, so they actually decide they're in love in a week or so). In the second one, the man is utterly set against marriage and the woman despises him, but again, a few weeks and one shocking event changes both their minds completely. In some authors' hands, those could become believable plots, but neither of these authors are that good. The characters' interactions lack depth or wit, and the emotional transitions from indifference or dislike to loving one another lack any believability. A snort of disbelief was my strongest reaction to either tale.
The third story, by contrast, is quite touching and very well written, but the ending, again, feels rushed. This is very unfortunate as the story up to that point was excellent and quite original. Both leads have depth, though we know the woman's viewpoint best, and the conflict keeping them apart is real, serious and something that arouses sympathy for both people.
Something that disturbed me about all three works was the viciousness all three men were capable of. In all of the stories there was at least one point where the man lambastes the woman quite heartlessly. He dislikes her or he's angry with her for some reason, so he gives her a vicious tongue-lashing that is disproportionate to the offense and blind to everything good and decent she's done. The things he says to her are more about his ego and pride than anything else, and yet the story deals with his outburst(s) as if they're nothing out of the ordinary, even for men who think of themselves as 'gentlemen'.
I don't see it that way. These men are being cruel, unfair and bitter, and they're shown saying things to a gentlewoman they wouldn't say to a servant. Yes, people often get angry and say things they shouldn't, especially when they're feeling disappointed, but there are usually lines we won't cross when we're speaking to strangers or people we'd normally try to protect (like children for us and gentlewomen for them), and these men are far over those lines.
Worse, only the second story shows the man thinking about his behavior, accurately accepting that he was at fault and regretting it before meeting the woman again and declaring his love. That recognition of fault is an important progression in moving from anger to apology to openness in love, and the author's skipping that step damages the reader's ability to believe these two people can learn to love one another. It's hard to do it when the author jumps straight from attack to being in love, and even harder when the author makes excuses for the man and sees no reason for him to be sorry. In the first story, another woman tells the female lead that his comments are hurtful just because he's a man, and excuses him by saying something like: "they just don't know how to phrase their suggestions tactfully." Her comment was especially jarring because the man was making personal attacks on the woman, not just offering badly phrased suggestions for improving her charity.
The author felt she'd handled that problem by having the woman decide afterward that the man was right: she was just acting Lady Bountiful with no real understanding of poor people's lives. Unlike the author, however, I don't think that the woman thinking he's right in one thing he said excuses his over-the-top rudeness or the fact that he deliberately attacked and insulted her.
That story also had the least believable elements of any of the three. First, the relationship trajectory, as their relationship leapt from dislike to love for almost no reason, and offered little evidence to support why they would have changed their minds so completely. It also had a secondary plot that was almost as bad, with the lead woman's sister moving from in love to out of love and back again, with dizzying speed and little justification for her choice to forgive him. Then there was the obligatory heroine's makeover with new clothing colors completely altering people's opinions of her appearance.
This is a romance trope that is quite overused and, to me, at least, says disappointing things about the author's creativity. What if a woman is actually plain and still worthy of being loved? There really aren't that many beautiful women around. Many of us have pretty faces or good-looking bodies, and even more of us are plain or even actively unattractive in features/form and yet have something lovely to offer the person who can see past the obvious. Why are romance authors so completely fixated on appearance? Probably because society is, and doubtless it's more fun to write and read about wealthy beautiful people wearing gorgeous clothes and living in astonishing mansions than about us ordinary folk...