December 2012, European Historical Romance (1811 England)
Harlequin Historical, #345, $5.99, 282 pages, Amazon ASIN 0263892840
Note: This title is also available as an eBook at Amazon and other eBook retailers.
There are some fairytale plots I love more than others, and Beauty and the Beast is one of those stories that tends to draw my attention. There's something about that plot that just showcases the transforming power of love for me, not to mention the fact that, in the hands of a good author, it can make one think about where beauty truly lies. Beneath the Major's Scars seemed like a promising Beauty and the Beast tale at first, but weak, meandering plotting and odd characterizations pretty much did it in. It has its good points, but overall ends up being pretty forgettable.
As I mentioned, the book does start off well. In the prologue, we meet Zelah Pantewan (yes, that really is the heroine's name!) immediately after the birth of her stillborn child. The young Zelah is unmarried and naturally, her family is concerned about the ruin that this event will bring upon her. When the plot jumps forward in time by three years, we find Zelah living in the home of her married sister, where she helps care for her sister's stepson. Zelah does not want to burden her family, so she is trying to find employment as a governess. Though Zelah has resigned herself to a life of working in the homes of others, things start to change when she meets her sister's mysterious neighbor, Major Dominic Coale.
Zelah's nephew Nicky is out playing and has a serious fall on the boundary of his father's property and Major Coale's, and when Zelah discovers him with Major Coale, she at first thinks that the terribly scarred man is hurting Nicky. When she realizes that he is only trying to tend to Nicky's wounds, she calms down and accompanies the two to Rooks Tower, where Dominic allows the two to stay until Nicky is sufficiently recovered to go home. This portion of the book actually flows quite well as we see Zelah starting to develop empathy for Dominic and to try to bring him out his shell, and we learn more about the wounds Dominic suffered in the war and how he retreated almost completely from society upon returning home. Unaware of Zelah's secret, Dominic cannot understand why Zelah would be so determined to seek work as a governess. He seems all too aware that the lot of a governess was not an easy one, and as he finds himself more at ease in Zelah's company, the scenes of tension and flirtation between the two begin to increase in intensity.
As I read through the opening chapters of the book, I could see things working and I could feel a world starting to develop. The author does a good job of giving the reader a feel for the inhabitants of West Barton (Zelah's home) and Rooks Tower as well as the immediate neighborhood. In addition, Dominic's retreat from society feels believable, as does the desperation of Zelah's situation. The reasons for Zelah and Dominic spending time together fit well with the story and at first, the slow thawing of Dominic's icy reserve and Zelah's slow journey toward actually trusting a man are rendered effectively. However, after the first several chapters, the tone shifts a bit and the story just falls into a rut.
The first problem I noticed was that Zelah somehow transformed from a wounded heroine to Pollyanna, determined to put the brightest face on things and to bring Dominic out of his tortured internal world by sheer force of her sunshiny personality. Despite her past, Zelah does have a certain innocence about her and she does have a more positive outlook on life than Dominic, but the transformation into sweetness and sunshine just felt fake, as did Dominic's overly quick about-face. Likewise, the buildup of the relationship also felt a little awkward. Things move very slowly at first, which feels quite realistic given the characters' situations, but then as they reach a point where one might expect more romance between them, they get caught in constant replays of Zelah protesting that she really has no option other than governessing while Dominic suggests to Zelah that she really ought to consider finding herself a husband (but not him) because he knows that would make her happier. It goes on and on, and these two never really get anywhere - until we get to the rather abrupt resolution.
As if Zelah's dark secret and the family drama weren't enough, we also have an unnecessary mystery plot to contend with. It involves disputes over boundary lines with a neighbor of West Barton and Rooks Tower, and while that subplot is interesting from a legal standpoint, it really didn't enhance the book overall. Because it was not as well developed as it could have been, the land dispute alternately served as an unwanted distraction from the main action or as an overly convenient excuse for various plot twists. In the end, the book comes off somewhat confused, with a jumbled mix of tones and plotting that do not always flow cohesively.
There's no denying that the Beauty and the Beast story holds a lot of appeal for many readers, and when done well, it's a story that lends itself to deeply romantic writing. However, Beneath the Major's Scars is a pretty humdrum, ordinary read, so I'd advise readers looking for fairytales to keep on searching.
-- Lynn Spencer
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