Part 1: Prada and Prejudice: not to be confused by the same-named book by Mandy Hubbard
I will confess upfront that I did not complete the trilogy. Though I enjoyed what I read, there were so many discrepancies and illogical choices made by the heroines, heroes, and author alike that when my e-book got returned to the library of its own accord, I did not pursue a renewal. That said, there is much here to enjoy, and for readers just looking to do that and content to wait for the happy ending, these may be just right.
Heroine Natalie Dashwood (so is this S and S or P and P or both?) is 23ish and working in her grandfather’s store so he doesn’t “cut off her quarterly allowance.” Meanwhile, she has a boyfriend whose claims that he “had a few pints with the boys, got pissed, [and] passed out” she understands as meaning he “spent the night in bed” with another woman. Her grandfather announces he has hired a new Operations Manager he wants her to meet. An impatient well-dressed stranger makes demands on her time at work, selecting lingerie for a conservative woman, and she treats him rudely, though he is a paying customer. That night, Natalie plans to dump Dom, only to be beaten to the punch in a humiliating way, made worse by her own drunkenness and correspondingly bad aim when she hurls her drink at him. The man who gets soaked kindly offers her a ride home (Natalie does not recognize him), only to be challenged by Ian Clarkson, married to her best friend but clearly eager to cheat on Alexa with Natalie. The first gentleman prevails, and his scent of “soap and leather” make enough an impression that Natalie tells him she “really, really want[s] to have sex with” him. (Who says that? More to the point, what Austen-based heroine says that?) He kindly says he’d like “nothing better” but declines on account of her being drunk, their being strangers, and her desire for revenge against her ex.
You can guess whom she sees again at the Monday morning board meeting.
Rhys Gordon has been brought in to save Natalie’s family store, which she calls her “birthright” but which is in serious trouble unless some major changes are made. After an uncomfortable meeting, he insist on taking Natalie to lunch to help fight her hangover and to discuss her recent “behavior, . . . spending habits, [and] . . . relationships,” none of which reflect well on her.
That doesn’t go well. He ends up insulting her with his suggestions that she is spoiled and selfish (“some of us actually DO have to work for a living”), and she just curses and snaps at him before storming off. Is this the Elizabeth Darcy “not handsome enough” scene? But it’s too early for the failed proposal. I was really unsure how this was working as a Mr. Darcy variation, other than arrogance and misunderstanding, but I kept trying. They quickly make up, and then another problem arises, this one more clearly the Darcy (“attractive? . . . but she’s not my type”) way. She also overhears him speculate that she’d be a “hellcat in bed,” which embarrasses her. So she flees again, rather than confront him with her suspicions that he is using her to get publicity for the store, which it sure looks like to us, too, but we at least still hope is not true.
At this point, our heroine seems like a spoiled brat until we learn that her “father’s suicide gutted” her, and then at least can cut her a little slack. The hero is better, at least responsible and employed in a real way. His family story is also compelling: The dad beat the mom regularly and once tried to beat Rhys, who “knocked him down and pummeled him” until his mother and a neighbor dragged him off.
I realized several chapters in that there’s another sub-plot I wasn’t really following. It involves Alastair, who serves on the board, his often-abandoned wife Cherie, and their teenage daughter Hannah, who apparently offered herself to her boyfriend Duncan but was rebuffed. It seems quite possible that Alastair is having an affair (even flaking on the date he set up with his wife to compensate for all the times he isn’t home for dinner), but later we see him worrying about “more hours lost to number crunching” and “another round of apologies to Cherie.” Meanwhile, Cherie seems more contemplative than she should be about her own relationship with Duncan’s father, Neil, but I am having trouble connecting this sub-plot to the rest of the story, let alone to either Austen novel. Hannah, who now is apparently “hanging out’ with Jago Sullivan, currently a stock boy but studying cooking at night, is frustrated by her dad, who is so against the boy, first getting him fired and then practically chasing him away when he and Hannah are just talking after their date. No clear reasons are given to explain Alastair’s feelings, but then of course he turns out to be right.
Back to the part of the story I was following: Rhys is pretty determined. When Natalie disappears and then hangs up on him when he calls to check on her, he finds out she’s at her mom’s and follows her there, demanding to know what is wrong. Usually, we’d want to discourage this kind of behavior in men, but here it actually works because Natalie does tell him, and his explanation for what she actually overheard is credible.
The story doesn’t completely make sense in several places. For instance, Rhys says he called her cell to make sure she got home safely, but she’s still driving home at that point. Is it supposed to be because she runs out of petrol? Maybe, but that seems a bit too coincidental. Dominic, now clearly a drunken rock star in need of money and willing to do anything to get it, says no initially to an opportunity to be the face of a new fragrance? That makes no sense. Are we to read him as drunk? Stupid? Why did Natalie ever like him? Why does Keeley? Later the text shares Natalie’s thoughts about how “different” Dom was when they were first together in Warwickshire, but it’s hard to imagine this guy not being a complete waste of space. On the day of his wedding, Keeley catches him “mid-bonk with one of her bridesmaids.” If his plan is to marry Keeley for her money, why would he take a risk of that kind? (Later, Natalie says as much to him, and his pathetic defense is “I was drunk, Nat! I only wanted a quick shag before I got myself shackled for life to Keeley.”) Clearly, though, even this is not “the biggest, juiciest scandal to hit the UK since . . . Well, since ever.” Has our writer forgotten the tampon episode? And that’s just the first incident that came to mind when I read this ridiculous comment. Another illogical choice: if Natalie is fantasizing about Rhys kissing her, why does she order garlic broccoli?
Also nonsensical is how Natalie has still not learned to spend less money. Even her friend Tark says carefully that “perhaps” she “should be a bit more—erm, frugal.” Who is she supposed to be? No Jane Austen heroine acts this way. Then she “completely” forgets her meeting with Rhys, not obviously remembering how serious the financial problems are or how worried he gets when she flakes. I had trouble sympathizing with her. Natalie’s older sister makes her appearance in the form of one Caroline Dashwood (is the mixing of names deliberate? It feels confusing.) Everyone seems to know Natalie needs to stop spending money—except Natalie, who offers to buy her sister’s wedding gown, though her sister correctly tells her Natalie “can’t afford a knock-off from Marks and Sparks right now, much less a designer gown.” Natalie’s instincts are good in terms of making sure her beloved sister gets “the wedding of her dreams,” but she is so irresponsible she is annoying.
When Rhys talks with her again—actually interrupting yet another day of shopping—he seems finally to get through to her how serious the situation is and how critical she could be to saving her family’s store. Natalie and Rhys take their relationship a step deeper when they go furniture shopping for his new flat. She, like Elizabeth at Pemberley, is impressed by how “gorgeous” it is, and he likes “the way she widen[s] her eyes whenever she [is] surprised or indignant” and well as “the challenge she present[s]” him. Natalie didn’t grow up in luxurious circumstances even though her father owned the store, and certainly not happy after her father killed himself and left her mother to find him. Because the stores were doing well, he was able to make repairs to their house but didn’t get Natalie the horse she wanted, for which reason she “told him [she] wished he were dead.” The next day, he was. (How could he do that to her? She was just a child!)
Ian is pretty awful as the villain. Not only did his stepfather blackmail Natalie’s father, which sent the company “into the red” and led to his suicide, but also now Ian plans to go to the tabloids so her “father’s name will be smeared like shit all over the media” (his coarse language suits his character) unless Natalie marries him (after he divorces his pregnant wife, her best friend) and recommends him “for a partnership in Dashwood and James.” Later, when Rhys directly asks her what’s going on, and she should tell him, she still lies and says “nothing.” Why? When she finally does tell someone, it isn’t anyone we would think, but that person gives the same advice we would: tell the police. Tell Rhys.
Dominic is not who we think he is, and knowing what he’s trying to cover actually did draw me to his side for a moment. He, too, is getting blackmailed. And we certainly understand better why Natalie fell for him. And why Gemma is now. He still causes a lot of unnecessary problems, though.
There are a lot of coincidental sightings in bars and bookstores and such for a big city like London, but maybe with fewer jumps in logic, I could overlook those. A sampling: Sophie at her own wedding is hanging out with Natalie, whom she is meeting for the first time. She shares what happened between Cat and Rhys, and Natalie is disgusted by Rhys, and then a few minutes later she is kissing him on the dance floor. And what happened to his resolve about not pursuing Sir R’s granddaughter? When the police sting is set up, why are they giving the instructions to Rhys rather than to Natalie? If Cherie knows there is press everywhere and thinks her daughter is home sick, why would she set up a clandestine meeting at her home? If Alastair figures out why Rhys looks so familiar, why is he so shocked when Rhys tells him their connection? Gemma’s character is inconsistent. One moment she dumps Dom by hurling hot bacon at him, and the next she’s calling Keeley a “tarted-up cow” for showing up to sing with him and save the store. Then, to save the day, Natalie blackmails Dom? That is the lesson she has learned from all this? Why, if Rhys knows everything else and if the police know exactly what room she is in, does Natalie risk bringing her smart phone in the lining of her clutch, knowing “if Ian found the phone,” he might do something awful? But once she turns “off all sounds on the mobile,” how does she hear it ring when Poppy calls, back from Sri Lanka? After everything they have been through, how could Natalie not know if she and Rhys are “an item”? The incredible night aside, she runs crying into his arms when she has a breakdown, he accompanies her to tell her grandfather the truth, he’s always looking out for her well-being. Is she suddenly so without confidence? Why?
But then, in an exciting twist, after the glorious fashion show (why isn’t Sir Richard there?), Ian manages to trick Natalie. Rhys and the police learn quickly about her phone idea (“sat nav”), so we have to hope that works in time. She, at last, has learned some lessons: drink more slowly (or not at all), have faith in the good people, know how to handle the bad ones (annoying detail: the special pouch Phillip made to conceal her phone sure lets its captive out a lot).
Despite the story’s gross errors in logic, by the end, I really wanted these people to get their happily ever afters, which, I suppose means I really enjoyed the story. Thus, I began the next.
Part 2: Love and Liability
This story follows Holly, Alastair’s older daughter, in her career and romantic life.
The prologue has a hungry girl escaping what sounds like a crazy ex-boyfriend. Again, satellite navigation emerges as a big deal; she has mistakenly taken his phone, which means he can find her. (So why doesn’t she just ditch the phone? But of course she doesn’t.)
Holly works for BritTEEN magazine under a “nightmare” editor, Sasha, whom Holly thinks of as a “predator.” Sasha, while mocking Holly, assigns her “to interview Henry Barrington,” a “well-regarded financial solicitor” who “might stand for MP during the next election.” Holy first got this job because she did a proper interview with Dominic, which she got because of Natalie, so at least these stories are clearly connected, even though the link to Austen is still not.
I wasn’t super impressed by Holly. Why does Holly not immediately google the man she is about to interview? Why does she assume he has “bifocals and a receding hairline”? She is as clueless as Natalie was. I know our heroines have to be flawed, but no Austen heroine is a total idiot. She sure sounds like one, though, when she tells her interviewee that she “didn’t have any time to prepare” so she basically knows nothing about him. When she goes to interview the man, she compares herself to Anastasia Steele going to interview Christian Grey (as in 50 Shades of). Groan. Holly, too, can’t manage money, and is constantly going to her dad (like Natalie and her grandfather) for money. What is happening? She also has a secret boyfriend, but she’s in her 20s, not usually the time to sneak around.
Finally the text tells us that she did google him but kept getting interrupted. A bit lame, but better. They make poor first impressions on each other, but why, when he calls to ask her out and to apologize, and when she finds him “a gorgeous, sexy man,” does she say no?
A positive learning experience for me involved some British food terms: “tuna on wholemeal,” “extra salad cream,” “no crisps,” “diet Ribena.”
It turns out Sasha is trying to get Holly fired; but why? Does she really think the Editor in Chief would move Holly up ahead of her? Sasha’s work motives seem entirely mercenary—she has to keep this job “at least until she found something better—like a rich husband”—so we are entirely without sympathy for her. We soon learn that she has “always loathed the smart, clever girls in school” and seems to see Holly James as “a pampered clever clogs.” Worse, Sasha leads Kate, whom Holly helped get a job and who is now Holly’s flatmate, to feel jealous and vengeful of her. But then her resentment reveals a disturbing childhood (six year old “listening as her mom and a strange man went at it in the next room,” for instance). Clearly, Oliver wants us to feel some pity for this character, but her behavior still makes that difficult.
The narration is heavy-handed again, as in the scene in which Holly’s dad invites her for a dinner party to which they have also invited John and Enid, who have “two sons, both grown. One [is] married, and the other [is] in banking or insurance or something equally boring.” We know immediately what’s going to happen, but of course Holly doesn’t. Maybe as a result of the “one too many vodka and grapefruits” the previous night. When Holly goes home for the weekend, she finally reads her published article on Alex, and two pieces of info that should not be there are there. Little does she know who is likely already in her house. It’s weird that Oliver basically borrows this part of the plot from Bridget Jones: Alex used to be “Hank, the little boy next door who’d sometimes shared her sandbox and backyard wading pool.”
Holly has a good idea for the magazine but also just for human interest: teen homelessness. Now, maybe we’ll learn what happened to the girl from the Prologue. When we finally get Zoe’s story, told not to Holly but to her street friend Sharon, it’s pretty bad but almost unbelievable. Why, for instance, would she have taken a phone with her if she didn’t want to be found? Whom did she think would get and pay the bill and see the calls? How can she check Erik’s voicemail? Why would she know his password? Why does she suddenly feel tender towards her “mum,” who trusted Erik over her own daughter? Why doesn’t Zoe go to the police with her evidence?
In other developments, Alex has two new clients; Dominic Heath and Marcus Russo, a “Michelin-starred chef.” Marcus is opening a “brasserie right around the corner” from Gordon Scots, Jamie Gordon’s place, made possible by “his half-brother Rhys’ financial stake.” Kate is slimy. She pretends to be Holly’s friend but is working for Sasha to unearth something about Holly that will get her fired. Jamie’s not totally in the clear either, first getting Alex drunk and then possibly deliberately sabotaging a third date between Alex and Holly because Jamie doesn’t think she should “be spending the night with Alex.” Marcus’s daughter Poppy has been missing; now those pieces are coming together.
Onto Wickham, maybe. This supposedly up and coming photographer pushes his way into meeting Zoe before Holly is ready, Kate is immediately attracted to him without knowing much about him, he was a runaway himself (why?), he gives his “word” to Zoe that no one will know the article is about her, and everyone quickly trusts him.
A list of the totally ridiculous: Holly blurts out when first meeting Camilla “you’re Red Thong!” What sound of mind adult shows so little self-control? And what potential Mr. Darcy threatens his Elizabeth with telling her father that she carries a “raspberry-flavoured condom at the ready” in her handbag? This is just absurd. When she realizes he hasn’t heard her message yet, she tries to take his phone. Why doesn’t she just apologize in person? Who are these people? I shouldn’t have been surprised when it lands in the vichyssoise. (But what Mr. Darcy would tell his would-be leading lady that “if you’ve ruined my phone, you’re buying me another”?) And why, when she needs to downplay the problem, would she make sure Alex knows the magazine does well in “Scotland and Wales, too,” not just England? Why would Holly think Alex would text her to say he’s suing her, and why her rather than the magazine? What chef and new restaurant owner would put his guests on the spot by insisting they classify their meal as a date or not? How could anyone thinking of running for office do a striptease karaoke dance at a hot new restaurant? Again, this doesn’t make any sense: Alex offers to cook Holly dinner on Friday. She insists that she cook him dinner instead on Sunday, knowing she “couldn’t cook.” Then why? Later, why does Holly easily tell Will, whom she barely knows and who is dating Sasha, Sasha’s private story, but to Alex, she gives a brush off answer when she actually trusts—or should trust—him? Absurd: when Holly is staying rent-free with Jamie, she brings home a stray cat and feeds it Jamie’s fancy “Devonshire cream” without even consulting him.
There are also awkward, and in some cases, non-existent, transitions. For example, Holly is sobbing about getting sacked. The text says,”she’d go home, she decided, to Oxfordshire. Today.” The next line, dialogue, is “excuse me. Have you seen this girl?” One might assume the person is asking Holly, but no, now we’re in a different scene, and it’s Shannon who is being asked about Zoe. No markings, let alone a chapter change. Why? Is this an attempt at style?
Forgive me, but at this point, my e-book got returned, and though I was mildly curious how it would turn out (and eager to see if I experienced a similar desire for Holly and Alex to find happiness as I ultimately did for Natalie and Rhys), I wasn’t curious enough to do anything about it.