Beyond crazysauce. Dramatic recap provided—prepare your romance novel bingo cards.
So one of the things we all know about Harlequin Presents is that the plot is relatively simple, right? In the category format, where you only have 55,000 words-ish, there just isn’t room for epic twists and turns. Nora Roberts once called category ‘Swan Lake in a phone booth’, referring to the fact that you need to squeeze a lot into that small amount. She’s right, but let’s face it – Swan Lake doesn’t have the most complicated plot of all the plots. (Princess is transformed into swan. Prince falls in love with her. Shenanigans means that they can never be together, so they drown themselves in the lake and ascend to heaven together. Done and dusted and tied up with a neat little bow.)
What I’m getting at here is that because category romances aren’t heavy on the twisty-turny-I-never-saw-that-coming-wait-who-was-that-guy-again plots, you can usually rely on the plots to make sense. I mean, sure, sometimes the plots are completely insane—Are there really that many secret babies out there? And couples forced to get married because of someone’s will?—but I don’t think anyone reads Harlequin Presents for gritty realism. Within the crazy world of Presents, the plots usually make sense, even if the protagonists make some melodramatic decisions sometimes.
This plot does not make sense.
I love how crazy Harlequin Presents books can be. For me, it’s one of the most pleasurable things about them. They’re spectacular and hedonistic and excessive and it’s all great fun. But this book, Captivated By Her Innocence? It’s just nonsensical. I spent the whole time reading it going, “…wait, WHAT?!”
I think the best way I can demonstrate this is by doing a bit of a dramatic recap of the plot. So obviously, here there be spoilers. Looooooooooooots of spoilers.
ANNA – our winsome ranga heroine. Teacher. Angelically good with children. Virgin in the guise of a sexy redhead. Was dumped by her fiancé (who she met via internet dating) for a lingerie model one week before their wedding, which has convinced her that she is frigid.
CESARE – a Scottish laird. Who is also a Mediterranean billionaire. And a former racing car driver. And he looks like a pirate. And who is a huge dickhead.
ANGEL – Cesare’s sister. A model. Basically a plot function in human form, with few defining characteristics.
JASMINE THE PLOT MOPPET – Angel’s daughter, Cesare’s niece.
PAUL – Cesare’s friend, who once saved his life.
ROSIE – Anna’s cousin. Looks almost identical to Anna. Had an affair with Cesare’s friend Paul, who broke her heart. She tried to kill herself, but Anna saved her life.
SCENE ONE – Some random school in Scotland
ANNA is interviewing for a job at some random school in Scotland, despite the fact that she’s practically been guaranteed one at a high-paying school right around the corner from her flat. Why she chose the Scotland job over the high-paying conveniently-located one is never discussed. In fact, this other job is never mentioned again.
ANNA: I am super competent! I have great answers for all of your questions!
SCHOOL BOARD: You seem to be the best! We are conducting a very strange interview process where we interview all the candidates in a row, then get them to hang out in the waiting room before we come out and dramatically announce who has won Teacher Idol. But let us tell you now, wink wink, nudge nudge, that the winner is y—
The door opens. CESARE enters, accompanied by choirs of singing angels and a draught. ANNA gasps on account of his extreme masculine beauty. He projects an aura of ‘raw masculinity’, and ‘along with sex, he literally exude[s] sex from every perfect pore’. Or maybe he just has really good deodorant, but whatever. ANNA is dumbstruck. Literally, she finds herself incapable of listening to the words that come out of his mouth—she can only register the ‘vibrant timbre of his deep voice’ ‘past the static buzz in her head’.
SCHOOL BOARD: Oh hai, final board member who hasn’t been here for any of the other interviews but should definitely get to ask a bunch of questions to this chick!
CESARE: *asks a bunch of simple but devious questions, designed to cause Anna extreme torment and embarrassment*
ANNA: *fails dramatically, despite the fact she is supposed to be the most competent teacher in the history of world*
SCHOOL BOARD: *gives job to someone else*
CESARE: *gloats, because he has managed to royally fuck over this ‘first-class immoral bitch’*
POINT OF VIEW: *fluctuates wildly*
SCENE TWO – The flashback discount warehouse
CESARE remembers how ANNA totally had an affair with his friend PAUL who saved his life, and that nearly ended his marriage. Obviously, all the fault is ANNA’s, because she is a wicked, wicked temptress.
ANNA remembers how her cousin ROSIE, who coincidentally looks exactly like her, had an affair with a married man and how she tried to commit suicide when he dumped her. She sighs winsomely.
SCENE THREE – Some train station somewhere in Scotland
ANNA and CESARE are totally both at this train station now. There’s been some delay or disaster or something that means ANNA is stuck there, but as to why CESARE is there… he’s just there, okay? So is his sister ANGEL.
CESARE sees ANNA.
ANGEL: Dude, are you okay? You just started snarling. Like actually.
CESARE: Evil temptress whore bitch slut.
ANGEL: Excuse me?
CESARE: Her. Not you.
ANNA sees CESARE. Because she is the most professional, competent and sensible person ever, she exercises her good judgment and stays away from him.
Wait. No. She does the exact opposite of that.
ANNA: Why didn’t you give me that job, you evil slug-weasel nincompoop?
CESARE: Someone else was better.
ANNA: Dude. I am the most awesome teacher ever. Look at how professional I am, confronting you in public about a job you didn’t give me. This will look awesome on my resume.
CESARE: Be that as it may, we totally gave the job to someone else. Suck it.
ANNA: I will not suck it.
CESARE: That’s not what you said to Paul.
ANNA: *realises he thinks she is her cousin*
ANNA: *does not disabuse him of the notion… because… um… reasons*
ANNA: Yeah, well, Paul is a dick! So there! I win!
ANNA stomps her foot and storms away.
ANGEL: Dude. What was that about?
CESARE: That sluzza slept with my friend Paul. She nearly ruined his marriage.
ANGEL: You don’t think that maybe Paul had—
ANGEL: But, I mean—
CESARE: Paul is all that is innocent and pure and good.
ANGEL: But it takes two to—
CESARE: He is a godly saint and she is a horrendous slutbeast.
ANGEL: So it wasn’t his fault even a—
CESARE: He is blameless in everything.
ANGEL: Umm…cool story, bro.
SCENE FOUR – Anna’s hotel room
ANNA: Umm… What are you doing here?
ANGEL: Oh, you know. Just normal things.
ANNA: I mean, how did you know I was here? In this hotel room? Out of all the hotel rooms in the city?
This exchange never actually happens. It is never explained how ANGEL mysteriously knows where ANNA is staying.
ANNA: Your boyfriend hates me, so he probably won’t be too happy you’re talking to me.
ANGEL: He’s my brother, not my boyfriend. Though isn’t he super hot?
ANNA: YES. I mean… umm… lol no.
ANGEL: Hey, want a job looking after my plot moppet kid while I do my modelling job which conveniently takes me away for long stretches at a time? Even though I leave, like, in four seconds, I haven’t sorted out what to do with her. You’ll get to live with my brother!
ANNA: Your brother thinks I am the worst person on the face of the planet. You offering me this job makes no sense whatsoever.
ANGEL: You’ll get to live with my brother…in a castle.
ANNA: Okay then.
ANGEL: Awesome. Here’s the kid, here’s the keys. I’m outtie-5000.
ANGEL disappears so fast nothing is left but a cloud of dust.
SCENE FIVE – The castle
ANNA and JASMINE THE PLOT MOPPET flit here and there being adorable.
CESARE scowls at them a lot, for lo! he can think of nothing except ripping ANNA’s clothes off with his teeth.
CESARE: *yells at Anna a lot for being a dirty whore*
ANNA: *doesn’t tell him that that was actually her cousin because…she just doesn’t*
ANNA: *is attracted to him even though he is nothing but terrible to her*
ANNA: *reminisces about her ex, whom she met on the internet, with whom she wanted to have a relationship based on respect, not passion*
ANNA: *reminisces about the lingerie model with whom he ran off, hoping that said lingerie model gains a hundred pounds*
ANNA: *is not particularly sympathetic towards the other woman there, considering how much she sticks up for her cousin in her mind*
ANNA: *is kind of a hypocrite*
POINT OF VIEW: *continues to fluctuate wildly and uncontrollably*
SCENE SIX – More castle
ANNA enters the library.
ANNA: I know! I will start talking to myself out loud for no reason even though I am alone.
CESARE: Not only are you the number one slutbitch in the world, you are also weird.
ANNA: Please, what slutbitchy things could I possibly get up to here? You’re the only dude here, and I hate you and you are gross.
ANNA: *has prime opportunity to tell him that it was her cousin that had an affair with his friend*
ANNA: *does not tell him because…reasons…because she doesn’t owe him an explanation even though he is literally making her working life a living hell…or something*
CESARE: *starts thinking about how he never, ever, ever wants to screw a virgin…even though he thinks ANNA will sleep and has slept with literally anyone and everyone on the planet*
ANNA: Hear that? I hate you and you are gross!
CESARE: I KISS YOU!
They make out, and it’s amazing, and ANNA has an out of body experience which sounds quite terrifying, actually. Maybe he suffocated her and she died for a second there?
ANNA: OMG you are the worst.
CESARE: Get out.
ANNA: *does not file a sexual harassment claim against him*
SCENE SEVEN – Yet more castle
ANNA: *reminisces more about how internet dating totally didn’t work out for her, and how she is frigid*
ANNA: *never explains exactly why she didn’t sleep with her fiancé*
ANNA: *still does not tell CESARE that her cousin was the one that had an affair with his friend*
CESARE: *fumes and has sexual fantasies and brings some chick home to the castle with him but then decides not to sleep with her because reasons*
POINT OF VIEW: *is completely out of control*
SCENE EIGHT – Guess what? Still the castle
It is late at night. ANNA knocks on CESARE’s door.
ANNA: So, um, your niece is—
CESARE: *totally macks onto her*
ANNA: *goes with it*
ANNA: No, wait, I need to—
CESARE: *macks onto her some more*
ANNA: *goes with it*
ANNA: Hey, your niece the plot moppet? She’s totally sick right now.
CESARE: OMG, you are terrible and incompetent as well as being a dirty hoor! Why didn’t you tell me?
ANNA: Because you stuck your tongue down my—
CESARE: Where is she, you useless prostitute?
ANNA: In her room.
CESARE: You left her alone?!
ANNA: Who was I going to leave her with? The wizards?
CESARE: I hate you and everything you stand for!
ANNA and CESARE go and look after JASMINE THE PLOT MOPPET and totally fall asleep in the same bed.
SCENE NINE – Still the castle
PAUL, the friend, shows up.
PAUL: Buddy! I…erm…which way is up?
CESARE: Paul, my dearest truest friend! Are you drunk?
PAUL: Liddle bit. This much. No. This much. Hee hee.
CESARE: How’s your wife?
PAUL: Oh…about that…she left me. Oopsie-daisy.
CESARE: She found out about that redheaded sirenwhore who totally seduced your innocent self and left you powerless to resist, didn’t she? I WILL KILL—
PAUL: No. She found out about some other chick I banged.
ANNA: *comes in*
PAUL: *totally doesn’t recognise her*
ANNA: *totally doesn’t recognise him*
CESARE: *thinks that maybe something is a bit off here*
ANNA: *leaves again*
PAUL: Hey, that ranga chick totally looked like that other ranga chick I used to screw.
CESARE: It’s the same one.
PAUL: Nah bro. It’s totes a different one. I might be totally shitfaced right now, but I can tell my redheads apart. Did I tell you that chick I used to screw was totally absurdly young and told me she was preggers?
CESARE: *realises his friend might actually be kind of a dick and throws him out*
SCENE TEN – Of course, still the castle
ANNA is reading. Enter CESARE.
ANNA: Oh hi.
CESARE: *incredibly inappropriate sexual comment*
ANNA: *still does not file a sexual harassment claim*
CESARE: So that was Paul.
ANNA: Oh. Rumbled. Shit.
CESARE: Why did you let me think you were the awful siren who lured him into a lurid extramarital affair?
ANNA: I never said I did.
ANNA: *never really offers a better explanation than this*
CESARE: Paul totally saved my life once. That’s why I thought he was a saintly being from the heavens.
ANNA: Oh. I guess he’s not so bad then. Even though my cousin tried to commit suicide when he abandoned her, but whatevs. She married someone else and just had a baby, so it’s all good. Cool.
Out of the blue, the virginity detector alarm goes off. Like, with no provocation or discussion of this at all, CESARE suddenly realises ANNA is a virgin.
CESARE: OMG WHY DID YOU NOT TELL ME YOU WERE A VIRGIN?
ANNA: Don’t worry. It’s not contagious.
Literally. She says this.
SCENE ELEVEN – STILL THE CASTLE
ANNA is watching TV and randomly sees footage of the car crash that ended CESARE’s racing career.
CESARE: Um, what are you doing and why is the TV so loud?
ANNA: HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? DIDN’T YOU KNOW MY PARENTS DIED IN A CAR CRASH? HOW COULD YOU BE A RACING CAR DRIVER AND OFFEND MY SENSIBILITIES YEARS BEFORE WE EVEN MET?
CESARE: Did you know that my mother never had much time for me, my uncles sexually harassed my sister, and I’ve been emotionally alone my whole life?
ANNA: I don’t want to die a virgin.
ANNA: Have sex with me.
CESARE: I’d better not—oh, okay, you totally twisted my arm.
CESARE: *forgets all that stuff about how virgins are the worst sex partners he was thinking before*
ANNA: This is why people who aren’t crazy get pregnant.
This is an actual line of dialogue from the actual text. I still can’t work out what it’s supposed to mean.
ANNA: BTW, I should tell you I’m frigid.
CESARE: *talks sexy to her in Italian and gives her like a million orgasms*
POINT OF VIEW: *continues to fluctuate with no rhyme or reason*
SCENE TWELVE – Yep, the castle still
ANNA and CESARE have crazy monkey sex for, like, two solid weeks.
ANNA (half asleep): Toadstool…aliens…swordfish…love.
CESARE: *totally freaks out*
SCENE THIRTEEN – CASTLEWORLD
CESARE: Anyhoodle, it’s been great, but my sister gets back soon and she can look after the plot moppet. I’m going away to do some business stuff, so I’ll probably miss you. It’s been swell, kid. Take this diamond bracelet.
ANNA: *to her credit, gets super angry about being paid for her sexual services and throws it at his head*
SCENE FOURTEEN – Castleland
ANNA is Skypeing with ANGEL.
ANGEL: Hey, could you drop the plot moppet off here in Spain or Italy or wherever the hell I am? You can hang out in the villa with me for a few days if you want.
ANNA: I’ll drop her off, but then I’ll get right back on the plane and come back to the UK. I have a job interview. For a job that does not involve 24/7 sexing your brother.
ANGEL: Whatever floats your boat.
SCENE FIFTEEN – Airport! Not the castle!
ANNA has dropped JASMINE THE PLOT MOPPET off and is moping around the airport feeling sorry for herself, waiting for her flight back to the UK.
CESARE: Anna! My love! I found you!
ANNA: Oh. Hi. What are you doing here?
CESARE: I stalked you here. Because I love you.
ANNA: I love you too!
CESARE: *gives her a diamond ring and takes her on the company jet and all their problems are suddenly solved even though they really haven’t discussed anything*
SCENE SIXTEEN (EPILOGUE) – Some yacht
ANNA: *now has that job that CESARE made her not get in the beginning*
CESARE: *is still stupid rich, judging by the fact that he bought her a yacht, complete with crew*
ANNA: *is preggers*
CESARE: *is happy*
POINT OF VIEW: *actually consistent in the epilogue! Hurrah! I guess we all did live happily ever after*
If it’s not obvious, this book is kind of a mess. I don’t know what happened here—I’ve read Kim Lawrence before, and while she’s never blown my mind with awesomeness, I’ve never noticed her work being this uneven. The whole plot hinges on Cesare thinking Anna is her cousin, and there is absolutely NO REASON for her not to come out and tell him that she’s not. And that’s before we think about the other logical holes. And the fact that Cesare is a huge arsehole and Anna is kind of an idiot.
And the point of view! OMG, the point of view. It changes so quickly and suddenly it will give you whiplash. Where was the editor? And that’s before we get to some really basic copy-editing stuff—there are a few key sentences that say pretty much the opposite of what they’re supposed to say. They totally make me [sic]. For example:
A total sexist pig he might be, but she couldn’t imagine anyone, including herself, arguing that Cesare was the sexiest man on the planet.
…I wouldn’t argue that he’s the sexiest man on the planet either. Because he is a dick.
And also, he is a Scottish highlander AND a Mediterranean billionaire AND a racing car driver AND he looks like a pirate. Romance novel hero bingo, anyone?
Yay or nay?
I’m going to have to go with nay on this one. I love the crazysauce of Harlequin Presents, but this book is just ridiculous. You’ve got to have some internal logic. And some consistency with your point of view, as well. This read like an attempt at omniscient POV, and that is so NOT your friend.
Who might enjoy it: Anyone who’s ever dreamed of a hero who was a highlander/Italian billionaire/racing car driver/pirate/arsehole all in one
Who might not enjoy it: People who like their books to make a modicum of sense
An advance reading copy of this book was generously provided by Harlequin Australia.