One of Miss Bates’s favourite films is Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night. Barbara Wallace’s gently romantic Christmas Baby For the Princess echoes it. Wallace’s hero, Manhattan night club owner Max Brown, is a film noir buff. References to Miss Bates’s beloved black-and-white films abound, enriching Wallace’s romance narrative. Capra’s film is not noir, but its themes of class, sex, love, and HEA are certainly of the romance variety. Like One Night‘s Ellie, Wallace’s heroine, Princess Arianna Santoro, has run away from her father, King Carlos IV of the mythical kingdom of Corinthia. Arianna was near-affiancéd to Manolo Tutuola, a Corinthian businessman her father had urged her to date with the hope they would marry. Always conscious of duty, and wanting to make her still-grieving father (after her mother’s loss) happy, she did her darndest to work out a relationship with Manolo. But Manolo turned out to be a cheating rat-bastard and now, Arianna is in Manhattan for the time and space to figure out what to do next. She’s pregnant with rat-bastard’s baby and her flea-bitten hotel doesn’t afford her protection, or comfort. Out and about for some air, she finds that “her wallet was missing”. “Out of all the gin-joints in all the world,” she walks into Max Brown’s for help (Miss Bates knows, wrong film, but since we’re making vintage film references … ) where the charming maître d’, Darius, Max’s friend and right-hand man, mistakenly thinks she’s answering their help-wanted ad for a waitress.
Wallace’s strength lies in her finally drawn, likeable protagonists and quippy writing. There’s even a wonderful chin reference as Arianna discovers her missing wallet and soon-to-be destitution: “Tucking her collar about her throat, Arianna lifted her chin with royal stoicism.” Arianna is a generous soul, a lovely mixture of sophistication and innocence in the big, bad city. Max is reminiscent of a good old-fashioned knight-in-shining-armor romance hero and, as an added rom-bonus, has a vintage film star’s debonair good looks; note Arianna’s first glimpse of him: “Arianna looked up and caught her breath. If the club looked like something out of a movie, this man was the movie star.” Max is as good a person as he is good-looking. When Darius admonishes him for playing knight to Arianna’s plight, especially after she turns out to be the worst waitress he’s ever had, he responds ” ‘I never said I wanted to save the whole world.’ The few desperate souls who crossed his path , is all.” Part of what makes Max and Arianna well-drawn is the complexity of their grief-ridden backstories. Arianna’s family losses make her loathe to disappoint her father or brother and Max’s abusive father and long-suffering mother make him seek, find, and rescue hurting, lost, and helpless souls.
From their first meeting, Wallace is very good at showing her hero and heroine’s compatibility, despite their seemingly disparate social standing. They’re gentle souls, who love twinkling Christmas light, walks in the snow, and curling up on the couch to watch an old film. In the romance’s initial stages, Wallace writes delightful banter, with Arianna playing straightman to Max’s Bogie-like wit; witness her claim that she’s waitressed when Max asks for her previous experience: ” ‘Where did you wait tables?’ ‘Oh, right. Italy.’ ‘Any particular location or did you serve the entire country?’ ” Wallace establishes believable impediments to Max and Arianna’s love: his knight-behaviour is offset by a certain emotional detachment stemming from a fear of losing someone’s love, or losing the person herself, as he did his mother; and Arianna’s sense of love and obligation to her family and country serve to separate her from Max.
Like too many category roms these days, Wallace’s hurries towards its HEA, satisfying as that resolution may be (as satisfying as It Happened One Night). Miss Bates admits she enjoyed the first half more than the second. Nevertheless, Wallace’s romance is a sweet story about two deserving, loving people. Her rendition of Manhattan at Christmas-time is lovely and her references to old movies adds an original je ne sais quoi to her romance. Miss Bates and reading companion Miss Austen say that Wallace’s Christmas Baby For the Princess offers “real comfort,” Emma.
Barbara Wallace’s Christmas Baby For the Princess is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on November 8th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.