I hear the term "old school" thrown around a bit and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what that means. It does conjure in my mind an image of slightly more lurid covers, although given what Avon still puts out, I'm no more confident of that assessment either. I didn't really start reading Romance until 2003. When I got into it, I looked for the back lists of only a handful of authors (Balogh, Beverley, Kelly, Metzger, and Putney). For this month's TBR Challenge I don't own too many pre-2000 books. This one goes all the way back to 1988 and I chose it because it's Carolyn Jewel's first published book and I'm a fan of her recent historicals, especially Scandal from 2009.her website, I would never guess that this book was by the same Carolyn Jewel. The style is so markedly different. As it has been nearly 25 years, it's hardly fair for me to expect otherwise. But this book is so different that it had me wondering if there were different "rules" for writing romance in the '80s vs. today.
In brief, this is the story of Isobel St. James, the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of the Earl of Chessingham. It's set in the 1780s. Her mother had taken Isobel to Boston and married another man. Isobel was raised in a loving home by a father who encouraged her musical talent and taught her to read, giving her a solid education. Isobel never knew Chessingham was her real father. After the death of her parents, Isobel goes to live with a cousin where she is treated as a servant. Her real father tracks her down and has her brought back to England where he can acknowledge her and introduce her to society.
As an illegitimate daughter, Isobel must be circumspect and watch her behavior. She works hard to please her father, but it is a struggle to adapt to a stricter society, and a world where a woman's intellect is dismissed. She attracts the notice of Alexander, Lord Hartforde and eventually falls in love with him. Alexander is a widower who had been betrayed by his first wife before her death. He's pretty adamant that he's not interested in getting married again.
I liked the setup to this story, the Cinderella feel of it. I liked Isobel and her passion for music and learning. I appreciated her ability to adapt to all of the changes in her life. Most of the story focuses on her.
Unfortunately I can't say I liked Alexander so much. He seemed to be a wooden, arrogant, self-important hero. He was often rude to Isobel, I guess because he wanted to deny the pull of the attraction. He ends up taking advantage of Isobel when she's tipsy and I think you could have a healthy argument over whether that scene constitutes rape or not.
The style of the book is very unlike what I'm used to reading these days. There is a ton of description, much of which I enjoyed because of the way it conveyed a sense of time and place. However, there is also an awful lot of tell and not so much show. The book doesn't flow from scene to scene very well and there are some abrupt moments when a new character is suddenly introduced.
The happy ending is very brief and not very convincing. Isobel and Alexander marry and then Alexander hurts Isobel deeply. Alexander orchestrates a grand gesture at the end of the book, but I didn't find it very satisfying emotionally.
So, is this book a product of its era? Or more a promising effort from a new author? Hopefully one day it'll be widely available again and you can judge for yourself. I'm glad I finally read it.