Miss Bates often wonders who can ever succeed Betty Neels in the rom-reader’s world of comfort reads? With every Marion Lennox she reads, she inches towards thinking that it might very well be Lennox. Not that Neels and Lennox have everything in common (the greatest difference being the reader’s access to the hero’s interiority) but they do share in the sheer decency, good eats, animals, and pathos of the worlds they create. These elements are present in Lennox’s Stepping Into the Prince’s World. And like last year’s Saving Maddie’s Baby, there’s much to love.
Lennox enjoys writing an accident, or disaster as the hero and heroine’s meet-cute. When Stepping Into the Prince’s World opens, disgruntled Special Forces soldier, Raoul de Castelaise, realizes he must leave the military he loves to take up the mantle of his native country’s, Marétal’s, rule. With his parents’ deaths when he was a child, his grand-parents have ruled while he dedicated himself to military service. He’s reluctant to return, but return he must. Before he does, however, he goes down to the Tasmanian port where he and his fellow soldiers had been conducting manoeuvres, and takes a friend’s boat out for a sail, is caught in a terrible storm, and rescued by Claire Tremaine.
Disgraced, framed Australian lawyer Claire Tremaine is Orcas Island’s caretaker. There isn’t much to take care of, as it’s a deserted island, but two millionaire eccentrics need someone to look after their ostentatiously gargantuan mansion. Leaving Sydney “in disgrace with fortune and in men’s eyes,” Claire lives alone on the island “beweep[ing] her outcast state” with an adorable fox terrier, Rocky. Lennox’s dramatic meet-cute is amazeballs, with swirling water, exhausted soldier, and rescuing mermaid. Claire and Raoul’s lives are at stake and they, in the end, rescue each other, as Claire at first guides Raoul away from the rip and then, in turn, he helps her to shore when she injures her arm. What follows is one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance conventions: hero and heroine get to know one another, gain friendship, connection, and attraction, in an isolated environment.
There is so much of Lennox’s romance that is beyond convention, however, making for a deeply moving romance and one of sheer delight. Much of the delight comes with Claire and Raoul’s brisk exchanges, witness Claire’s groggy state as Raoul sets about righting her dislocated shoulder:
“If you knew how different you look to Don … [the millionaire island home-owner] Don fills his T-shirt up with beer belly. You fill it up with … you”
“Muscles.” Right. It was the drugs talking, he thought. He needed to stop looking into her eyes and quit smiling at her like an idiot and think of her as a patient.
See, dear reader? Dee-light. Setting up mutual attraction, but also pointing the way to the hero’s nature: caring and honourable.
Lennox builds her romance with shared confidences, laughter, soul-baring, and fun, a walk to see the seals, a lesson in the making of tarte tatin. But it is Raoul and Claire’s maturity, clarity, and care that really won Miss B. over, in combination with Lennox’s awareness of the rom narrative as carrying the fairy-tale tradition. Here’s a scene and convo between Raoul and Claire as they ponder the future:
And suddenly the conversation had changed. It was all about them. It was all about a future neither had even dared to consider until this moment. A nebulous, embryonic future which suddenly seemed terrifying.
“I won’t let this go,” he said, steadily and surely. “Claire, this thing between us … I’ve never felt anything like it and I can’t walk away. but I’ve scared you silly. Plus it’s too soon. We’ve been thrown together in extraordinary circumstances. If you were Sleeping Beauty I’d see you for the first time, fall in love with you on the spot and carry you away to my castle for happy-ever-after. but that story’s always worried me. After the initial rush of passion, what if she turns out to have a fetish for watching informercial television? Or women’s wrestling? What if she insists on a life devoted to macramé?”
Miss Bates revelled in the combination of narrative pathos and bathos, in Raoul’s sincere love and legitimate, practical, realistic misgivings and his gently ironic view of their Cinderella story. And it truly is a Cinderella story: Claire, thanks to her humble, difficult beginnings, doesn’t see herself as fitting into a prince’s world. And it’s not a case of “the lady doth protest too much”. Claire’s qualms are borne of her background in part, but also in consideration of her introverted state. (Needless to say but say it she will, Miss Bates was thrilled with this bit.)
In the romance’s second half, Raoul convinces Claire to return to Marétal with him by offering her work starting his country’s first legal clinic. There, Claire and Raoul are subject to all the media attention, people’s scrutiny, and his grand-parents’ critique they’d escaped on the island. Lennox shows how the strains and cracks in Claire and Raoul’s relationship are subject to the world’s worldliness. They are called upon to make sacrifices. Because they are wonderful people, they live up to the occasion. But first, Raoul gets to be the ultimate in hero-dom, by offering his heroine love and agency:
“I’m trying to rewrite the Cinderella story. I’m trying to figure out how to get through this with your dignity as my top priority. This way you’ll come to the palace, you’ll meet my grandparents, you’ll see things as they are. Then you’ll come to the ball as an honoured guest. And, yes, I’ll dance with you – a lot – … this is a chance … our only chance … to wait and see. If you have the courage, my Claire.”
“I’m not your Claire.”
“No,” he agreed. “You’re your Claire and the decision is yours. Will you come home with me and give us a chance?”
So introverted, socially-demoted Claire follows the prince to his realm and … things go quite badly. Our hero and heroine suffer and sacrifices are made. But they learned a most important lesson at their watery meet-cute and it gives them a tool to work with to achieve their “happy-ever-after”:
“I just figured it out,” she said, cupping his face in her hands, holding him, loving him. “It’s taken me a while, but I have it. This courage thing … Do you remember in the water? I saved you and you saved me right back? As a team, imagine how much more we could save. Imagine how we could save each other.”
What a marvelous, perfect little romance Ms Lennox has written. A gem, Miss Bates thought as she flipped shut the e-reader with a sigh. Her reader-in-residence, Miss Austen, would agree (she did love her sacrifice, love, and agency, our Miss Austen), in Marion Lennox’s Stepping Into the Prince’s World, there is “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Marion Lennox’s Stepping Into the Prince’s World is published by Harlequin Books. It was released in September 2016 and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC, via Netgalley.
Do you have a favourite Lennox romance? Tell Miss B. all about it in the comments.