Head-Scratcher: Prince of Secrets, by Lucy Monroe

Cover of the novel. Head and shoulders image of a woman with bare shoulders, upswept red hair, and a ruffly purple dress. The dark-haired man is behind her, nuzzling her cheek.I picked this up because it was 99 cents and the heroine is a scientist. It’s a Harlequin Presents, and they are mostly not my thing. I felt about this the way I feel about a lot of short category romances: the set-up (the first 1/3-1/2 in which the protagonists are introduced and brought together) is the most interesting part, and the ending felt rushed, more predictable, and as if a lot of the tension dissipated. That’s an issue with a lot of romance, really, and it makes sense that endings are hard to pull off, since they are all moving to an HEA.

This isn’t a proper review, but comments on the beginning part of the book, through which my feelings varied from a) interest/amusement at the way Monroe was playing with the Presents formula; to b) boredom at the way she fell into the formula; to c) eyerolling irritation at the inconsistency of the characterization. Sometimes all on the same page. Hence, “head-scratcher.” It’s not really a wall-banger, but I felt the characterization, especially, wasn’t fully thought out. And since believable characterization is what makes or breaks the Presents fantasy for me, I didn’t love this. Here are some things I highlighted; I could make you guess whether my reaction to each was a, b, or c, but I won’t.

  • Hero Demyan asks heroine Chanel about her name: “[Your mother] named you after a designer brand?” She replies, “It’s no different than a parent naming their child Mercedes.” Uh, no. Google is your friend. I don’t think most of the world’s Mercedes are named after the car.
  • Demyan likes that Chanel isn’t “his usual cover model companion.” Heroes, why do you keep dating women you don’t like and aren’t attracted to? I’m worried about you.
  • Demyan is a prince of one of those made-up Presents-Europe principalities. It’s an island that split off from the Ukraine after World War II when they saw which way the wind was blowing, and supports itself on oil revenues. This move foiled the imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union, apparently. My eyes rolled right out of my head.

Chanel is a scientist in the way Presents heroes are milbillionaires. I.e. it’s mentioned when it suits plot and characterization, but pretty vague (she has a PhD in chemistry and does something in a lab). I didn’t really mind that, but her characterization is inconsistently tied to her vocation as a scientist.

  • She can be really observant in a way that suits a scientist character. Demyan is trying to lure her into a marriage because of a will (yes, it’s silly and implausible; I went with it), and she notices when his responses are calculated seduction rather than real feeling, telling him that sometimes he says things that “don’t sound true” and gives her a “plastic mannequin” smile. She wasn’t totally naive or a doormat.
  • I found her a reasonably plausible 29-year-old virgin. She has some experience, but she’s kind of socially awkward (eyeroll on that scientist stereotype), has never been in love, and doesn’t want sex without it.
  • Chanel has a matter-of-fact attitude to sex that also suits a scientist. I loved this passage:

“Are you completely innocent?” [Demyan asked]

Man, did he even realize how that sounded?

And people thought she was old-fashioned. “Even if I’d had sex, I would be innocent. Sex isn’t a crime.”

Stick it to that retrograde Presents alpha, Chanel!

  • But then there’s stuff like the moment when Demyan happily thinks that Chanel is “definitely imprinting on him sexually,” or her body knows she belongs to him even if her mind doesn’t yet, which the text doesn’t really challenge. Virgins are like ducklings, yo!
  • In a book with a scientist heroine, I found the misplaced hymen (yes, it’s somewhere inside) even more annoying than usual. Also, he breaks it with his finger because somehow that will hurt less. I think all romance authors should be required to read Dr. Jane Chi’s storified tweets on women’s shame about their genitals. Then go study up on anatomy. Don’t contribute to women’s ignorance about our own bodies.
  • But then there is the funniest ever kick at the google-eyed virgin trope (“it’s so big! will it fit?”). Chanel has read up in scientific journals, so she knows the average penis size. And since “Chanel was a scientist who had conducted enough measurements she could usually guess within a centimeter’s accuracy,” she knows Demyan is bigger than average. I laughed through her detailed, enthusiastic discussion of the research, which derailed his carefully planned seduction.
  • But then there’s no mention of condoms. From a scientist! There’s no mention of not using one, so I just imagined one in, but at first I was wondering if they forgot. Given the science-y trappings of Chanel’s response to sex, I think they needed to discuss it. I’m sure I have read at least one Presents that was explicit about condom use, so it can’t be against the “rules.”

Finally, this book has a heroine who reads erotic romance and there’s a scene when she defends that reading. I know Jane Austen did it first (“only a novel!“), but most authors are no Jane Austen. The defenses are always tired and familiar to me (“if I were reading a crime novel, would you think I wanted to kill someone?”). And since I’m reading this in a romance, it’s like preaching to the choir. I realize this passage might read differently to someone who hasn’t seen a million online defenses of romance-reading and who gets a lot of criticism for her reading. But none of these scenes has ever worked for me. I think they’re meant to make me identify with the heroine, but instead I feel estranged from the book.

In short–no, once again, in 1000 words–this novel made me crazy at times, but there was enough good stuff to make it an enjoyable way to pass some time beside a Washington cornfield, waiting for an 8am soccer match to start.

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12 Responses to Head-Scratcher: Prince of Secrets, by Lucy Monroe

  1. Ros says:

    I think the things you didn’t like are mostly the basic Presents stuff. I’m a fairly regular reader of Presents because they don’t bother me, but I can quite see why they make other people’s eyes roll. I did enjoy this book because I really liked Chanel. She’s different from most Presents heroines – and the lines you quoted are good examples of that. She might not be a recognisable real-life scientist but she is a pretty good Presents-world version of a scientist. I kind of liked Demyan too, though I didn’t love the deception plot. Overall, I’d say that if someone’s wondering whether to try Presents, this isn’t a bad place to start.

    • Ros says:

      Oh, except the condoms. Most Presents I’ve seen have explicit condom use UNLESS it’s an unplanned pregnancy story. Even then, it’s often a split or defective condom. I was surprised Chanel didn’t end up pregnant, to be honest, because that is the standard trope.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Me too. I kept waiting for it, and it didn’t come. I’ve enjoyed some Presents a lot, but yes, usually ones that mostly avoid the standard elements. (I can’t say I was really that annoyed–I do expect lines like the ones about imprinting on him).

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Meant to say, I liked Chanel too. One reason I didn’t mind the silly deception plot is that [SPOILER, I GUESS]

        when she found out about it, she didn’t run away or assume the worst, she confronted it and trusted her perceptions of Demyan. I loved that it didn’t turn into a Big Misunderstanding. Earlier she’d thought that it’s OK he’s bossy in bed and sometimes out of it, because she will stand up to him when it really matters. And she does. That’s why this book was never a real wall-banger.

      • Ros says:

        Right. I always like it when people in romance novels have actual conversations about stuff rather than just assuming the worst and going off the deep end about it.

  2. AMG says:

    That cover is CRAZY. Is it for a Dance Competition book, or a pre-WWI Fortuny gown of a novel.

  3. Sunita says:

    Oh my. Lucy Monroe has never worked for me, and I couldn’t get through an entire book with a heroine named Chanel unless it was by one of my HMB autobuy authors (and I’m not sure any of those writers would use it). And the scientist depiction would have sent me around the bend. I mean, I know it’s an HP, but I have my limits. Your writeup was fun to read, though!

  4. kaetrin says:

    I saw the heroine’s name and instantly thought of “Chanelle’s Institute de Beaute and House of Hair Removal” from a local comedy show from the 90s. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJSfzg6sxmM

  5. lawless says:

    Virgins are like ducklings, yo!

    I giggled a lot when I read this. It may become my new motto.

    I’m not sure how I’d feel about this book. My reactions to what you mention are similar to yours, especially the lack of mention of condom usage, but I like that it twists the usual Presents format somewhat and that Chanel doesn’t buy Demyan’s alphaholishness.

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