Desert Isle Keeper Review

Once and Always

Judith McNaught
1992 reissue of 1987 release, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Pocket, $7.99, 400 pages, Amazon ASIN 0671737627

Grade: A
Sensuality: Warm

So many of the "classic" romances I read when I was younger seem dated now, relics of a simpler time when men were men, women were women, and authors could write 150,000-word novels and not get half of the words slashed out by ruthless, pen-wielding editors. But viewed from the perspective of today's shorter romances, many of those extra words seem superfluous - too much narrative, too much irrelevant description, and far too little action or character development. Not so with Judith McNaught's Once and Always.

True, Once and Always utilizes many of the stereotypes of older romance fiction. There's the sweet, innocent, extremely virginal heroine, a girl from an unremarkable upbringing who nevertheless suffers no real difficulty in transforming herself into an Incomparable. There's the much older, alpha hero - and all of McNaught's heroes are about as alpha as it's possible to get - with a tormented past that makes him distrustful of all women, particularly sweet and innocent ones. And then there are some of McNaught's own typical plot elements. The meddling, strong-willed older woman, in this case the Dowager Duchess of Claremont, appears in most of McNaught's "classic" books. And McNaught seems to begin every book by depicting the heroine as a child (here it's kept short, unlike the similar beginning of Paradise, which seems to drag on forever).

The plot isn't incredibly original, either. Victoria Elizabeth Seaton, raised in a modest cottage in America, loses her parents in a tragic accident. Leaving everything behind except her sister (who plays almost no part in the book's plot), Victoria goes to England, where her nearest relatives live. There the two sisters part ways, and Victoria encounters Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield. As she arrives at his residence in a farm cart, along with a load of squealing piglets, Jason is not impressed, But the two of them are thrust together by Jason's father, who once loved Victoria's mother and thinks Victoria would be perfect for his son. In the best tradition of the scheming, manipulative old men who populate the pages of romance novels, he sends a notice to the newspaper claiming they are engaged, and then pretends to have a heart attack when they try to break off their "engagement."

Even though Once and Always uses these familiar elements, it's an incredibly successful book. Why? Most of the credit can be given to the characters, particularly the hero.

Jason is domineering, unkind, and occasionally cruel. Underneath it all, though, he's as vulnerable a hero as has ever existed in romantic fiction. Years earlier, he was betrayed by his faithless wife, who abducted their small son, Jamie, and ran off with a lover. Unfortunately, both Jamie and his mother were killed when their ship sank, and Jason's heart has been frozen since that day. Awful though it is to lose one's wife and beloved child, there's even more tragedy hidden in Jason's past. Jason's appalling history is slowly exposed to the heroine and the reader, and the more we learn about Jason, the more we realize how genuinely awful his life has been. Unlike many romantic heroes, who have become brooding, callous boors because they stubbed their toe ten years ago, Jason's torment is all too easy to sympathize with.

The heroine is superbly depicted as well. Victoria does, perhaps, suffer from being a little too wonderful. She has a brilliant talent for playing the piano, she tames wild animals armed only with a little food and the overwhelming sweetness of her personality, and she is, of course, stunningly beautiful. A little hint of imperfection somewhere might have made her more believable. Yet she has recently lost her parents, and that note of tragedy, and the stoically brave way in which she deals with it, makes it difficult for the reader to dislike her. She's a bit overpoweringly good and kind, perhaps, but not incapable of snapping at the hero when he genuinely deserves it. She has a sense of humor, and she's feisty, but not annoyingly so (unlike the heroine of another McNaught classic, Whitney, My Love). And in another typically McNaughtian twist, she instantly becomes the darling of society, and everyone who meets her adores her. Everyone except the hero, that is.

Reluctant though he is to fall in love, once Jason falls, he falls hard. In a touching love scene, Victoria sees the visible scars of his past, which he's always taken care to hide, and he cringes in embarrassment, expecting her to react with revulsion. Instead, she kisses the scars, and Jason's heart is immediately captured. (Never one to avoid reusing a good idea, McNaught penned a similar scene in Kingdom of Dreams, but for my money this one is better.) Of course, there are other obstacles on their way to happiness, including Victoria's very wimpy former love, who eventually comes all the way from America to find her. And there's the astoundingly compelling scene in which Jason, believing that Victoria is dead, proves for once and always that he does indeed have a heart.

Unlike many older romances, the description in general isn't excessive, although there are a few missteps. The horrifically overblown description of Victoria's titian hair as "a sheet of wet rubies overlaid with a sheen of gold" makes me cringe every time I read it. And one does grow tired of McNaught's heroines whispering in an "aching" voice. It makes the reader suspect they could all use a good dose of Robitussin.

But these are minor quibbles. Once and Always is a great book. How much do I like it? Well, I think that's pretty obvious. You see, my two daughters are named Victoria and Elizabeth.

LLB: Once and Always is my second-favorite Judith McNaught. It's not a DIK for me, though. My grade? B. As A Kingdom of Dreams is a DIK for me, I'd have to disagree with Marguerite about which book handles the scar issue best, although it's true McNaught wrote it first in Once and Always. Given that this particular scene is seemingly ubiquitous today, can anyone say which romance author wrote it first?

-- Marguerite Kraft

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