Afraid

Posted on July 12, 2012 by .

Years ago, the Duke of Darlington (aka “The Dasher”) found his cousin brutally beating his thirteen-year-old, half-starved daughter. Outraged, the Duke disowned her father and carried the injured girl to safety. Now, the Duke has learned that the tearful, bleeding child he left in the charge of a French convent five years earlier has turned eighteen. She’s also inherited an immense fortune that’s made her the target of fortune hunters. Immediately, the Duke sets off to Paris to retrieve her and do his duty, launching her in Society and securing a suitable husband. However, the young woman he finds is nothing like he expected: first, Fiona is stunning; second, she worships him as her savior; third, she is absolutely terrified of men.

As a confirmed bachelor, relentless womanizer, and casual misogynist, Dasher realizes he isn’t the right kind of man to be Fiona’s “St. George.” However, he also knows he’s neglected his charge shamefully. He vows to make up for lost time by “training” her–like one of his champion horses–not to shy away from every man she meets. He knows he can do it: he comes out on top in every race, and with beauty and fortune in her favor, Fiona is a “winner.”

But as he fends off Fiona’s sinister suitors while expertly selecting the clothing that will set her on the path to matrimony, the Duke discovers that his innocent, pliable, strangely perceptive ward is the one woman who can break him of his rakish ways. She’s the first woman he’s ever met who hasn’t been dying to rip his clothes off. The problem is, she doesn’t see him as a real man, she sees him as an idol. How can he make her love him, when she shrinks from the presence of men?

Barbara Cartland has been called the “Queen of Romance” for the Georgette-Heyer-style, chaste regencies that she wrote in abundance. Her biography brags that in 1975, she broke a world record by writing twenty books. In 1976, she surpassed her own record by writing twenty-one. 

Afraid is proof that it is possible to be too prolific. It is so tasteless that I can only imagine Cartland drawing plot points out of an envelope and jerry-rigging them into a book, no matter how disturbing they are when combined. The dynamic of the rake and the woman who reforms him is a worn one. The abused, abandoned, or orphaned child is a Gothic standard. Even “worshipping from afar” is familiar.

But the winter-spring romance of Fiona and the Duke is upsetting. The fact that she has prayed to him, thinking of nothing but her “savior” from the age of thirteen, creates a mismatch in their power-dynamic. The way that Dasher easily forgets a starving little girl that he “saved”–never even writing or giving her a holiday away from the convent–is reprehensible. The fact that he sees Fiona like a horse he can “train” is insulting.

Dasher (Duke of Darlington) is also an egregious “Gary Stu.” He is extraordinarily wealthy. The winner of any competition he enters. Desired and pursued by every woman he’s ever met. Admired by every man in society, who would do anything to be of service to him. The only thing that he can’t actually have is a girl who has been so broken and neglected that she has a developed severe mental disturbance. Yet, even she adores him despite knowing all about his womanizing and scandalous life.

I can credit Cartland for two aspects of the Duke’s development. His initial attitude towards Fiona is in character with his disdain of women, and he fully accepts that he is the one who has to change in order to be worthy of her.

Poor Fiona. Though Cartland had a great opportunity to explore the after-effects of child-abuse, she does not take it. Apparently, Fiona’s backbone dissolved when she was still on a bread-and-water diet. She barely resists the Duke’s plans for her, even though they cause her immense anxiety.

As I issue yet another luke-warm review, I begin to feel like my handle should be “Debbie Downer” instead of “Anne Neville.” But I think that even my historical namesake–another woman who was supposedly rescued from abuse by her beloved–would agree that Afraid crosses way too many lines.

I finished this book, but wish that I hadn’t. My advice is to avoid Afraid at all costs.

My ratings:

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