As previously noted, I have read, sometimes voraciously, romance since, well, my whole life. Yet, I managed, somehow, to avoid all of the big names of the genre. As I’ve rectified my omissions, I’ve discovered some great authors, puzzled over the success of others, and wondered what was the big deal about some. You know, the authors who are okay but not great, write nice stories but nothing that rises above the crowd, have a certain something but not enough to make you seek out more.
Thus we come to Linda Lael Miller. I won her title Daniel’s Bride through a Paperback Reader contest. Or rather, I won the privilege of reading and reviewing Daniel’s Bride through a Paperback Reader contest – my idea, which should teach me something. Hey, I thought, I like new stuff. I make macaroni and cheese with chipotle cheddar.
Our story: Jolie McKibben is saved from the hangman’s noose, moments before said noose tightens, when widower Daniel Beckham offers to marry the declared-guilty-but-really-innocent Jolie. Why, nobody can say. They marry, they return to his amazingly well-stocked, super-clean, highly-organized home where they get to know each other. Then bad things happen – when a girl hangs out with bank robbers, disaster is sure to follow.
Jolie, our heroine, is inconsistent and run-of-the-mill. After falling for the old “we’re just heading inside to cash a check” routine, she’s sentenced to hang. She’s rescued, but not particularly grateful. She was apparently abandoned and abused (not really developed). She longs for children. She lusts after and loves Daniel within chapters. She also tends to do the stupid thing; not TSTL, but not necessarily using the gray blob between her ears.
Daniel, amazingly, is a bit of an enigma. Why he chooses to marry Jolie, not to mention pay the debt associated with the bank robbery, doesn’t seem clear. Sure, he’s getting laid on a regular basis (no more visits to the brothel!), but the initial response to his stopping the hanging, “Oh, Dan’l, don’t you go interferrin’”, makes him seem like a bigger presence, a more activist presence, in town than he really is. He’s sort of mourning his wife, he’s definitely mourning his dead children, and there’s no way he’s going to love Jolie.
So we have this marriage-of-convenience (and, you know, I have a weakness for marriage-of-convenience stories, no matter how implausible), and after Jolie manages to whip up gourmet meals, albeit with skimpy portions, clean the house top-to-bottom, and prove herself capable of handling the life of a farmer’s wife, our happy couple discovers physical bliss. This happens early on, and I’m thinking, “I have a lot of pages to go. This is too good to be true.”
It was. Bad dudes return, Jolie doesn’t reveal their return; good guy neighbor dies of a snake bite (okay, didn’t see that one coming); Daniel’s brother and pregnant wife pop into town; good guy neighbor’s wife (Nan) is virtually enslaved by evil gambler dude; the chick from the brothel causes problems, though why is not clear; more bad guys, one of whom is trussed up leading to retaliation against Jolie; Nan becomes addicted to laudandum, endures a forced marriage and abuse; Jolie rescues Nan who is now married to gambler; sister-in-law gives birth; Jolie is kidnapped, witnesses brutal murder, escapes; happily-ever-after. Also, the find the money from the robbery – good because Daniel was out-of-pocket. Oh, and there’s an addition of adorable moppets who are almost-but-not-quite reclaimed by their nefarious, money-grubbing uncle.
Miller’s approach to conflict seems to “more is more”. I groaned when Jolie’s bank-robbing friends popped into the story. I cringed when the two children showed up (of course there had to be cute kids). And it kept piling on. Rather than develop any one plotline, Miller skipped from disaster to disaster, never letting me absorb the consequences or even admire her story. Rather than using downtime to develop story or character, Miller chose to toss sex scenes into the empty spaces.
Let me say this: Linda Lael Miller can write a compelling sex scene. Erotic. Emotional. If you’re a jaded romance reader, you know this is not something easily achieved. The only time I felt a real emotional connection between Jolie and Daniel was during the sex scenes. If only this real, raw emotion had been translated to other moments. This would have been an incredible story if Miller hadn’t been forcing reactions in other scenes (Jolie and her sudden “don’t hit me” moment was almost silly because it wasn’t from the heart).
I often don’t have patience with authors who stretch the story to fill word count, but this book would have benefited from a smaller story. Rather than throwing every possible conflict and, let’s be honest, cliché into the mix, paring down the elements – the cute kids, for example – would have allowed Miller to develop the emotional element more.
Daniel and Jolie only really connected in the bedroom, and while Miller tried to interject personality by having her characters use a more formal “Mr. Beckham”, “Mrs. Beckham” schtick, it’s ruined by inconsistent use of this approach within the narrative and with other characters. It comes off like the author couldn’t decide how to address her characters – this also amplifies the inconsistent point-of-view. I’d read a line and wonder who was narrating the scene.
Daniel’s Bride was a book that made me feel impatient. I wanted Jolie to be more forthright. I wanted Daniel to be more open (and this was an author issue, not a character issue). I wanted the romance to be as strong as the sex scenes suggested. There was so much going for this story that when it didn’t come together, I felt cheated. I think Linda Lael Miller is a better storyteller than this, but I’m not sure I’m going to make it a point to prove my theory.
On the plus side, not a touch of leprosy in sight!