Princess by Alison Fraser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Once upon a time, a little girl lived with her brilliant artist father in a small seaside village in Italy. Because her mother was dead, the father decided the little girl needed a new mother, so he went and found himself a bride from England, who was very beautiful, but unbeknownst to him, was quite cruel and jealous of his beautiful dead wife and the special bond he shared with his daughter, who was looking more and more like her mother with each passing day. One day, the father died and the little girl was distraught, but the new mother told her everything was going to be all right because she was going to be her special little girl from now, but it was all a lie. In time, the true nature of the wicked stepmother was revealed and the little girl, whose name was Serena, was punished because the stepmother never forgot that her husband loved the little girl and her mother more than he loved her as a bride and she hated the little girl for it. She locked Serena up in a room in an ivory tower and treated her as though she were mad, so that no one would believe her when she told anyone that stepmother was being cruel. Before she herself weakened and died, she promised to Serena that the man to whom she is entrusting her guardianship is also wicked and will ensure that Serena is locked up in a mental institution, so that no one would ever remember that the little girl ever existed. Because of this, Serena dreaded the day the man will come for her and she was not disappointed when she met him and saw a cruel, dispassionate, and arrogant man. Her fear of him only grew when she woke up one night in the grips of a nightmare and found him in her bed, a monster hovering over her, ready to devour her body and soul.
Adam Carmichael is the black sheep of the family. The son of a financial wizard, he dropped out of Cambridge to become a writer. For several years in his twenties and thirties, he was licentious, dissolute, profligate, and enjoyed watching the world burn with the money his father left him, along with his rich asshole, equally morally bankrupt friends. His experiences made for good writing material, though, because he is a famous, celebrated literary genius and rolling high and feeling good without a care in the world. That is, until his aunt, the younger sister of his mother, leaves him her entire estate and along with it, the guardianship of a nineteen-year-old girl who, according to his aunt, is mentally retarded. But Adam only had to meet the girl briefly to recognize that while the girl is in severe need of a mental health professional, she showed flashes of intelligence and cognitive sharpness in contrast to his aunt’s assessment. She is also incredibly beautiful. Adam’s like, nopenopenope, even I’m not THAT fucked up, I’m staying far away from this bitch. He does the right thing, calls his mom to take care of the whole mess, but right before he nopes the fuck out of Yorkshire, a little incident takes place in which he comes upon Serena screaming in her bedroom while having a nightmare. When he tries to comfort her, she struggles like a wildcat in his arms, so her nightgown rips and her boobs pop out and all of his good intentions are shot to hell for a couple of seconds, but just as he’s regaining his sanity, his mom walks in and finds them that way, with him hovering over a pale, cowering Serena like a creeper…
Adam runs away to Hollywood with his (evil) mistress Julia in tow and spends a couple of years there, throwing miserable Hollywood parties where he gets miserably drunk, and writing shitty screenplays that are purposefully shitty, but ironically people love. He tries to forget Serena, but that proves impossible because his mother insists on writing regular reports about her as well psychiatric evaluations that prove Adam right: Serena is highly intelligent, but with deep-seated issues caused by years of abuse inflicted by his evil, cruel aunt. When Julia taunts him about his obsession with Serena along with his drinking, Adam snaps and hits (!) her. He notes to himself that he wasn’t the first of her lovers to hit her because she has a sharp tongue, but that he had never hit her before—still, this little dark moment wakes something up in Adam and he realizes it’s time to go home to England.
He gets back to the wilds of Yorkshire and discovers that Serena has become even more beautiful and instead of the half-wild child he had left less than two years before with his mother, she has grown into a poised, well-mannered, sophisticated lady. She is finishing her studies at a local college and currently dating a local farmer, who--while not up to Adam’s intellectual standards and can barely keep up with Serena’s obvious wit--is perfectly kind and treats Serena very well. Best of all, Adam’s mother, Nancy, approves of him very much and thinks he is a good match for Serena. Nancy thinks Adam is up to no good—she witnessed that One Fateful Night when he was skulking around in Serena’s bedroom—and warns him to stay away from Serena because she knows what he’s like and she was the one who helped Serena become the person that she is now and she doesn’t want Adam destroying her. Adam tells her she’s wrong because he’s in love with her and he wants to marry her and take care of her.
Now here is where Adam deviates from your usual Harlequin Romance Novel Hero Central Casting. We’re just halfway through the book and here, Adam is openly telling his mother that he is in love with the heroine and wants to marry her. Usually, at this point, the hero hasn’t realized this for himself yet and is only thinking with his penis. Usually it’s MINEMINEMINE, gotta get her in bed, gotta brand her, gotta pee on her, gotta let the other dudes know that the bitch is mine. But with Adam, it’s not like that. Yes, he teases Serena, makes her mad, and does all the arrogant, posturing, maddening things that a Harlequin Romance Hero® does, but it’s only to draw Serena out of her shell because she’s determined to shut him out. A part of Serena still equates Adam with her stepmother because after all, her stepmother assigned Adam to be Serena’s guardian because the stepmother believed that Adam was just like her. Serena is with Farmer John because he is safe, even though he bores her to death and she finds Adam sexy and intellectually stimulating.
Adam calls Serena “Princess” because the first time he saw her, she looked like a fragile, beautiful princess who must have been locked up all this time in a tower by her evil stepmother, his aunt. His first instinct was to save her, but he was wrapped up in his own cynicism and wasn’t quite in the business of saving princesses from towers. After coming back from staying away from her for so long, Adam finds that she’s become a different kind of princess, the “ice” kind, more inscrutable than before and even more unwilling to let him save her. Adam tells her that her boyfriend isn’t good enough for her, that she needs someone who is a match for her intellectually, and that a man who is angered by a smart-mouthed woman is more inclined to respond with his fists because he doesn’t have his wits to rely on (good scare tactic, Adam. Remember when you slapped Julia for being mouthy?
I really enjoyed this particular HP because both of the protagonists could hold their own. Adam isn’t just some out-of-control, overly hormonal brute who mauls Serena at every opportunity; he understands her vulnerabilities and the deep hurts she carries deep inside from the abuse she received at the hands of his aunt. When needed, he is sensitive and patient with her. One of the things that interested me about this book was that Serena was described as autistic, but she isn’t, not really. She is able to retreat deeply into herself and disappear into her art as a way of saving herself from the cruelties of her stepmother. Eventually she learns enough coping skills to be able to go outside of herself and could distinguish reality better from her daydreams and nightmares, but she is still understandably wary of Adam for most of the book. Still she doesn’t cower before Adam and gives as good as she gets. She doesn’t let him bully her around. What I really like about this coupling even though there is a considerable age difference is that Serena can keep up with Adam and they have many things in common, not just the passion and the sex. I really think it’s a happily-ever-after that can be sustained long after the book ends.
What I wasn’t a big fan of was that the villains were other women. I’m not really fond of the Good Women, Bad Women trope and this book was chock full of them. Serena and Nancy, Adam’s mom, were Good Women as an example because they’re smart, care about other people, love books and culture, and actually love Adam for who he is and not just his money. The Bad Women are Serena’s evil stepmother (and Adam’s aunt), Adam’s ex-girlfriend Julia, and to some extent, John’s ex-girlfriend, who is also snide and petty with Serena. None of them appreciate good art or books and think they’re a waste of time. Julia doesn’t really “get” Adam’s work like Serena does and when John’s ex-girlfriend meets Adam, she tells him she’s never heard of him because she doesn’t do a lot of book-readin’ because she doesn't find it as practical as working around the farm. Even Adam’s aunt, the evil stepmother, didn’t really understand what a great artist Serena’s father was because she was dismissive of him. To some extent, John, Serena’s boyfriend is this way also because he doesn’t truly understand Serena’s art. At an auction where he and Serena are bidding on an artwork that Serena is very interested in, John’s greatest sin is not recognizing that the artist is Graham Templeton, Serena’s father, and that the subject themselves are a young Serena and her mother. Because he’s a PLEBIAN WHO DOESN’T DESERVE SERENA, THAT’S WHY. Luckily for Serena, the winning bid goes to Adam, who DID recognize instantly that the painting was a Graham Templeton and he was actually buying the painting for Serena as a “goodbye present” because he had decided to let her go since she seemed to hate him and hasn’t shown him any encouragement at all, so he was just going to go away forever… But then she gets annoyed with him and almost slaps him and just like that, he was BACK, baby! Truly, the intellectual snobbery in this book is staggering.
That said, I really enjoyed it and I loved Serena and Adam together, despite the great age difference. I loved Adam (I didn't love the hitting so much--why did you have to do that, Adam?), the drunken, cynical writer felled by an ice princess who declares to his mother, “I love her. I want to marry her” in the middle of the book. In the middle of the book! That’s crazy.
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