Karen Ranney is a long-established romance writer and her books much-beloved to many readers. The Devil of Clan Sinclair, however, was Miss Bates’s first Ranney novel. While Miss Bates never says never, and always gives an author a second chance (if the sins are literary and not ethical), she’ll remain wary of any and all of Ms Ranney’s titles if this is what she has to go by. Though there are echoes to Judith McNaught’s Once and Always, Downton Abbey, and Grant’s A Lady Awakened, all of which Miss Bates loved (well, maybe not the McNaught, but Downton and Grant are the non-pareil), The Devil of Clan Sinclair does not inspire similar enthusiasm or loyalty. Only after a two-thirds slog of a read was Miss Bates somewhat engaged, the characters elicited a modicum of sympathy, and the writing style became less off-putting, but problems remained, festered, and left Miss Bates dissatisfied. She realized there may have been serious purpose to Ranney’s tale: to convey a theme of “forgiveness,” “acceptance,” and “understanding,” as the hero states, necessary to forging a solid marriage; the journey to that HEA however, fraught with lies, deceptions, and a good dollop of blackmail and kidnapping, and that doesn’t even describe the villain, only the hero and heroine, was not fun.
The ingenue American heiress figure doesn’t always work for Miss Bates (not even when Henry James wrote it). From the first page, Miss Bates was prejudiced against the narrative and her feelings remained consistent throughout. American heiress, Virginia Anderson, and her domineering, cold, indifferent father are in England sniffing around for an aristocratic husband for her, or at least her father is. Virginia, gauche, innocent, more interested in lurid broadsides than languid aristos, books than balls, falls in love with Macrath (isn’t that a surname?) Sinclair, who, it turns out, is neither devil nor laird. Miss Bates kissed good-bye her hopes for kilt-clad lads, war cries, and bagpipes; Macrath is an inventor, a self-made man from the wrong side of the Edinburgh tracks, who made his fortune from an ice-making machine!
Virginia’s father dismisses Macrath’s suit and compels her to marry the sickly Earl of Barrett, who promptly and conveniently dies, leaving Virgina (her fortune entailed, hence the connection to Downton Abby), his mother Edna, and sisters, Ellice and Eudora, destitute. Unfortunately, her father, who could have taken on British entailment laws with American aplomb, is also dead. There’s a will too, leaving everything to the earl’s “male heir;” very confusing, thought Miss Bates. The mercenary Edna convinces Virginia to be impregnated by the nearest convenient candidate (hence, the connection to A Lady Awakened). Paul, the slimy servant (like Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey) offers his services, but Virginia can’t bring herself to take advantage of his … um … generosity because she has Macrath “on the mind” … even though her singular experience with hubby was awful and she hopes never to repeat it. She still has the hots for Macrath (confused? so was Miss Bates).
Off she goes to Scotland (yay Scotland, kilts, lads, but not in this novel), seduces and abandons Macrath, returns to London, gives birth to the new Earl of Barrett and saves the financial day. Whereupon, she and some of the household fall ill with smallpox. Macrath returns from a trip to Australia, where he sold the idea of his new ice machine, and decides to court Virginia, the woman of his life. His visit to the stricken household results in the discovery of his son (end of secret-baby plot), whom he kidnaps and sets up in his lair … (rats, there’s no lair) just a sturdy house with a grotto (okay the grotto is cool). (SPOILERS AHEAD.) Virginia shows up (scar-free, of course) to get her son back. Macrath won’t let him go … and then Macrath decides to keep her at Drumvagen as well. Maybe she’ll marry him? She feels a sinner … no, she still wants to return to London, not for a moment considers, or considered, coming clean about all she’d machinated. Macrath wants revenge; no, he wants to court her. But wait, that oily servant, Paul, he’s up to worse stuff at the end: turns out he’s not just a slimy annoyance, he’s a black-hearted villain; no, he’s a psychopath! Poor Miss Bates’s little reader head was spinning. (Mild spoilers END here.)
Miss Bates apologizes for the snarky tone; it takes effort and heart-ache to write a novel and Miss Bates doesn’t mean to be dismissive. But this was one frustrating read. She believes that more often than not the problem with unsatisfactory novels, such as this one, is that the author is not in control of her material. This is evident in the neophyte writer, but all writers are subject to it, including a veteran like Ranney. Until her e-reader hit the 61% mark, Miss Bates couldn’t abide this novel: thanks to a strangely contradictory and unethical heroine, a flat hero, and a writing style running rampant with redundancies and bizarre phrasing. When a novel elicits nothing more than the stiff-upper-lip reader’s dogged determination to finish the darn thing, it’s a failure.
Most problematic were the hero and heroine. Virginia is unethical: she plots to save the Barett fortune by using Macrath as her stud, doesn’t tell him about her machinations, and considers blackmailing him to get her son back. Even when she seeks to recover her son, and admits that she loves Macrath, she doesn’t come clean with the financial reasons for her actions. Are her actions understandable? Not really, what loyalty does she owe Edna, the mercenary mother-in-law who plotted with her father to ruin her chances for happiness, who, without conscience, sends her off to Scotland to deceive Macrath and return pregnant so that they can continue to deceive society and the law. Miss Bates also had problems with Macrath, who seemed to smirk and coolly make his way through the first two-thirds of the novel in what was supposed to be suave and sophisticated and strong and savvy, but really, he’s a doofus. For such an intelligent, inventive, self-made guy, why wouldn’t it occur to him that several copulatory bouts with Virginia would result in pregnancy? Overall, he’s okay, though … just blank. Then, he turns into baby-napper and mean guy extraordinaire. You’d rightly say: why did Miss Bates love Grant’s A Lady Awakened, but took such a dislike to this novel, whose premise isn’t that different? Firstly, Martha’s financial plight involves more than the survival of a mercenary mother-in-law and some fluttery sisters-in-law. It involves a community’s survival. Secondly, Martha is forthcoming about her “deal” with Theo: one can debate the ethics of what she’s doing, but she certainly doesn’t deceive anyone. All Virginia had to do is TELL THE TRUTH and MACRATH would lay the world at her feet. Even until the last moment, she thought a debt-ridden title for her son was better than a loving father for him and a rich, handsome, adoring husband for her. Indeed, when the HEA was achieved, Miss Bates couldn’t resist a long-suffering eye-roll and dramatic pretend-slap to the forehead. Enfin!
Anything, no matter how outlandish as a plot device, can work in romance if the the hero and heroine are convincing (they don’t have to be consistently sympathetic) or the writing is superlative. In The Devil of Clan Sinclair, the writing is as peculiarly unappealing as the hero and heroine. There are redundancies and peculiar phrases. Miss Bates was, after all, reading an e-proof; nevertheless, this doesn’t help what is already a weak narrative in concept. The first half has a disconcerting use of flashback to recount Virginia and Macrath’s courtship, as well as a back-and-forth movement between England and Scotland that doesn’t aid matters. Here are two examples of strange phrasing: of Virginia, we learn her wily deception is an act wherein, “she’d been provoked into courage;” and, when, she lays her hand on Macrath, she does so on “his shirted chest.” Really, “shirted”? When Virginia resolves to do the deed and get with child, she says she was “running full tilt toward sin.” “Full tilt,” is there any other way to approach serious “sinning”? Moreover, Ranney does something that drives Miss Bates nutty when an author is trying to capture characters’ thought processes: of Virginia, “Did that mean she was a vile person? She would have to answer the question later” … because she’s too busy right now being a vile person; and of Macrath, “His chest tightened at the thought of her navigating that part of the cliff. He pushed the thought away to investigate later.” Who thinks like this? Who are they, Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll think of it all tomorrow”? (At least that most annoying of characters in that most over-rated of novels … no, it’s not a romance … voices this aloud, with an appropriately raised fist, in the film, into the purple-hued sky. Maybe if there was some heather and a sunset? Could these scenes have been salvaged?)
The only thing that rescues this novel from Mr. Knightley’s “It was badly done, indeed” are Ranney’s characterization of the servants. The villain Paul is standard cardboard badness and unconvincing: he reminded Miss Bates of those grinning, leering villains in silent films who are always tying a damsel to the train tracks. But Hannah, Virginia’s maid (and her nascent relationship with Macrath’s lab assistant, Sam) is lovely: sharp as a tack, “kind and courageous,” as Virginia says, and with more sense in her few scenes than Virginia and Macrath over the course of the entire novel. Macrath’s house-keeper, Brianag, is also a very cool and interesting character, as are the descriptions of Macrath’s house, Drumvagen. It was heartening to see such an honest, well-rounded portrayal of the “downstairs” characters. Ranney gives an honest, well-written account of birth-giving, as well as the smallpox epidemic. But when the appearance of minor characters, painful physical details, and illnesses make the reader sigh with relief, this novel has a problem.
Miss Bates has heard good things about Ranney’s Tapestry and would give her another try. For The Devil (read Benign) Of Clan (TBD) Sinclair, there are “rubs and disappointments everywhere.” Mansfield Park Ranney’s novel is available today, July 30th, and thereafter in the usual places and formats.
Miss Bates received an ARE from Avon Books via Edelweiss in exchange for this honest review.