So my assignment for TBR challenge is to catch up on a series I’ve been neglecting. Since I read tons of books and have a tendency to fall off the series wagon midstream, I had so many possible books to read, it was downright mind-boggling! I’ve been craving a historical lately and I generally like Delilah Marvelle, so I decided to dive back into the neglected Scandal series with her 2011 release, Once Upon a Scandal. The promise of lovers reunited (love that plotline!) and a tale set at least partially in Venice appealed to me.
And then I started reading it.
Set in the 1820s, the book opens in England with a deliciously romantic prologue. The still somewhat innocent Jonathan Thatcher, Viscount Remington, has fallen head over heels in love with the ethereally beautiful Victoria Emerson. He longs to declare himself, but Victoria has not yet come out and Jonathan himself is bound to travel to Venice to help settle his stepsister there.
The two spend only a brief time together before Jonathan leaves, but it is long enough for him to declare his love to her. And then we read their letters. At this point, I found myself melting completely into the book. The letters are beautiful, but toward the end it becomes obvious that something terrible is happening to Jonathan in Venice. We won’t know what that is immediately, but it brings matters between Jonathan and Victoria crashing to a halt. Normally the “I can’t tell you my horrible secret so I’ll cut off all contact” play doesn’t fly with me, but in Jonathan’s case, what we eventually learn about his fate is horrible enough that even a fairly jaded reader could probably buy it.
Five years pass, and Jonathan returns to England. I had hope of a romantic tale of love and redemption, and while I did get a little bit of that, the good stuff got mixed in with too much eyeroll-inducing crap. When Jonathan returns, Victoria(understandably) is not exactly rushing to greet him. After all, this is the man who broke her heart and simply stopped answering her letters with no explanation. Victoria also has problems of her own as her beloved father is dying of a terrible illness.
This is all very heart-rending stuff, and as we see what Victoria has lived with through her father’s illness and what Jonathan had to survive in Venice, my heart did ache for them. The author writes that part of the story fairly well and if she’d stuck more to these themes, this could have been a real emotional punch of a romance. However, the author relies more on various contrived plot points to move her story along and these took away from the story rather than adding to it.
To start with, we learn that Victoria’s father had set up a contrived game by which she would have to pick a suitor. Jonathan, of course is one of the contenders, but the game is still ridiculous. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll simply add that the means by which the action shifts from England to Venice is equally ridiculous. While I found Venice interesting as a setting, I was disappointed to see that the author gave us a somewhat wallpapery Venice. Sure, we get to see gondolas, masks and some of the other details associated with the city, but the use of the place and its history lacked a certain depth.
Tacking on an over-the-top and rather unnecessary villain didn’t help. Parts of the plot felt as if they were simply an artificial means to bring the heroine into contact with said villain, and that just did not work. Even so, the parts of the book that dealt with Jonathan trying to convince Victoria that he loved her could be very sweet. Victoria annoyed me a bit with her constant insistence that she would not believe in love, despite all evidence to contrary. Her attitude made a lot of sense in the earlier chapters of the book, but it went on for far too long and in the later chapters, it felt like yet another contrivance in an already fairly contrived story.
The author’s letter at the opening of the book made it clear that she intends this tale to be a play upon the Cinderella story, and there are definitely elements of that to the plot. However, even when one reads it as a fairytale, Once Upon a Scandal just feels artificial rather than enchanted. Since I enjoyed parts of the story and it did have a strong beginning, I’d say it probably evens out to a C.
– Lynn Spencer