I have, of late, like Hamlet, lost all my mirth and romance seems stale and, dare I say it, puerile. I read one of my favourite contemporary romance authors, Lucy Parker, to get my romance-mojo back, her latest and first in a new series, Battle Royal. While there were aspects I loved, and it sustained my interest throughout, by the end, I was left with “meh, it was all right.” I loved the baking-rivals-turned-lovers, Dominic De Vere and Sylvie Fairchild, and it satisfied my great love for the The Great British Bake-Off, but it was 100 pages too long and unravelled in a disappointing way.
Dominic and Sylvie are delicious; they’re reading confections, and their rivalry, a delight. He was the stern judge on Operation Cake to her sparkles-and-icing-sugar excess: one exploding unicorn-cake later and she is booted on her bootie. Years later, now a successful baker, her shop faces his and the rivalry is renewed when they’re both up for making the royal wedding cake: may the best baker win! Like a cake that shows rising promise, the first half of Battle Royal was marvellous: witty, funny, endearing, with two protagonists who can quip, tease, and banter with the best of them … then, it fizzled and deflated like a failed soufflé.
Dominic is austere, classical, Apollonian perfection to Sylvie’s riotous, the-more-spun-sugar-the-better, Dionysian excess. Dominic is cool-one-brow-cocked to Sylvie’s wide grin. It’s so easy to see they belong together and so much fun to look forward to how they’ll be the last to know it. Parker does a marvellous thing with Dominic: she plays one of her best hands when she recreates her signature sympathetic poor little rich boy (like my heart’s fave, Richard Troy of Act Like It, rival only to The Austen Playbook as my favourite Parker). Dominic wasn’t loved or cuddled as a child and now he has trouble feeling, expressing tenderness, or being held. Sadly, Dominic, whom I LOVED, went from cool detachment to tenderness-oozing snuggle-bear without rhyme or reason. If he’s cool and detached because of childhood trauma, a writer needs to show how he emerges from that to the light of love and especially attachment. I love a cold-fish-hero who is transformed by love, but I do need a little development to show me how he gets there. Like most romance-readers I can’t stand insta-lust, but insta-glom is an under-rated and under-reported romance sin.
Sylvie and Dom are so great, I can forgive and still sigh with reading pleasure, but Parker “added” two secondary romances to Sylvie and Dom’s: a tragic one set in the past and the bespoke-cake princess’s with her commoner groom-to-be. The tragic love affair (of the princess’s uncle, RIP, and his commoner lover, Jessica, let’s call them the anti-Wallis-Edward-VIII) was sentimental, melodramatic drivel. Then, a romantic suspense plot surrounded the princess and her fiancé that grated on my nerves when its solution, ONCE AGAIN, resorted to a character suffering from a mental illness who behaves in a violent manner. Argh: why this short-cut to plot, Ms Parker? My impression is Parker only had one terrific romance to tell, Dom and Sylvie’s, the length of a category, but contracts will be contracts and demand their page count. Tacked on characters and plot meanders: it creaked along and I could feel every single one of Parker’s contrivances. Except for her sequel-bait, dammit: Dom’s sister’s romance is next. Petunia De Vere was sheer delight: chutzpah, vulnerability, and an ethos of “where angels fear to tread”. She’s irresistible and even though I wish Parker had stuck with her Carina production, I’ll follow her to this Avon-flattening-out of her originality if only to get the occasional glimpse of it. Petunia shows promise; don’t ruin it, Avon. (Also, I really really hate the cartoon cover.)