The Forbidden Innocent by Sharon Kendrick (2010)

Book review: The Forbidden Innocent by Sharon Kendrick (Mills & Boon [Modern Romance], 2011 [2010])

New bride at Blackwood Manor?

Having spent her childhood in care, Ashley Jones has no one. She desperately needs her new live-in job as an author’s assistant. But she is filled with trepidation when she arrives at isolated Blackwood Manor and meets the formidable Jack Marchant. Ashley thinks she is just a drab nobody … but her heart goes out to anguished, tortured Jack. She has no idea what troubles him. But one day a private kiss becomes a passionate affair … an affair that is as secret as it is forbidden … The Powerful and the Pure When Beauty tames the brooding Beast …

Working my way through the list of Jane Eyre derivative novels, I came across this one recently and was pleased to find it available in eBook format – it means less clogging up of an already overcrowded bookcase! Also, it was slightly cheaper than buying it in paperback, but on the downside, you get an eBook where two people’s lines are on the same line and “…” is replaced with “.” which looks a bit peculiar. But there you go.

The Forbidden Innocent is about 18-year-old Ashley Jones who was brought up in a manner of different foster homes. She comes to Blackwood Manor somewhere on, or at least by, the moors oop North where she’s to be the secretary of aristocratic ex-soldier Jack Marchant. She’s hired to type up the novel he’s writing by hand. No nanny, no little French girl.

Ashley and Jack fancy one another from the word go, and they have to work up to the point where they have sex, which they then do quite a lot, and that’s basically it. It’s a modern take on Jane Eyre, which sadly misses the whole point of the original novel.

This review will contain spoilers, so you know.

Reading some of the reviews of this novel, people expressed their dislike of the age gap, saying they found it creepy. I just thought, “well, it doesn’t float everyone’s boat I suppose, but IT DOES MINE!!” and when I started reading, I have to admit I can see where they’re coming from. Some people find age gaps like that creepy regardless, and other people are perfectly happy with it, because after all – does age really have to come in between Twu Wuv? (As long as it’s legal, that is; let’s not get too carried away here!) The problem with Jack and Ashley is that YES, it’s CREEPY! Why? Because he keeps lusting over her “taut, young flesh”, essentially. This goes on for about half the novel, until he finally shuts up his internal monologue about her teenager looks and just gets on with gettin’ it on, so to speak, but before then, beware the squick. If he had shown any sort of compunction about her being so young, it would have been different, but when he (paraphrased) goes, “OMG, I fancy the pants off a hawt teenager, yay me!” I do find it disturbing. That she’s half his age is something he considers, very briefly. It’s a bit like, “she’s technically still a teenager, maybe I’m being silly but … DANG, SHE’S MIGHTY FINE AND I WANT TO PLOW HER LIKE A FARMER!!”

I know most people would have objections about the publisher of this book (Mills & Boon = Harlequin) and roll their eyes and dismiss it off-hand just because it’s a romance novel. Problem is: this is the sort of romance novel the naysayers would use as evidence of the genre being beneath others in the great genre status contest. It’s too simple, to begin with. On their very first meeting, the would-be couple both react with an “OMG, I want to have sex with him/her”, and it’s not long to go until they work up the courage to do something about it. And then it’s Bestest Sex Ever-time for quite some time until eventually there’s some plot creeping in again. Not just that, but there’s the use of language as well:

‘Or are you afraid?’ he questioned silkily.

That’s just one example of far too many (page 15, location 149). Sometimes it serves a purpose to particularly point out how something is being said, but you don’t need half as often as you’re getting here. Then there’s the stereotypical descriptions of how incredibly manly the hero is (page 22 / location 239):

presence of such remarkable package of masculinity. As if he could dominate her as he dominated the room.

Sigh. On the plus side, there was something I wrote down because I really liked it (page 52):

I always think that boredom indicates a lack of imagination.

Oh yeah, I like that one. I don’t understand kids and teens who complain of having “nothing to do” because it just means that they haven’t got the imagination to occupy themselves in any sort of vaguely meaningful way. When I was a child, I played with my toys or read a book. When I got older, I started writing letters to friends I had made on the Internet. And then there was the advent of the computer at home … So I always found a way to have stuff to do. Simples.

Anyway. Where was I?

The thing about Jane Eyre is that she’s not just a plain little mouse, she’s got a good bite and can take care of herself. Ashley is mainly moping around being doe-eyed around Jack. Sure, she can take care of herself, but I don’t see much of the fire that she should have. And Jack? He’s tortured and anguished at times, but mainly, just a randy bugger with a masterful attitude.

Similarity with the original, aside from that? Oh yeah, there’s definitely some of that. The house party is some fashionable friends coming over for a weekend, but Jack seems quite disinterested in the Blanche Ingram character, so what’s the point? We already established there’s no Adéle equivalent involved here, so what about the mad wife in the attic? Well, there isn’t one. The restless pacing in the night that Ashley hears at one point is really Jack. No, that wife of his is in Santa Barbara, California. At a hospital, in a coma. Mrs. Marchant lured Jack into marriage by pretending to be pregnant and he did the right thing by her. When he found out and realised he didn’t actually like her and tried divorcing her, she wanted far more money for it than he was willing to give. Luckily (?) for him, they were involved in a car accident and she came out of it needing surgery and landed in a coma, where she’s been the past couple of years.

Now, I do actually like this idea. To translate Bertha Mason in the attic to modern day is tricky – in fact, I haven’t found a way to do it yet without it sounding terribly out of place. How she ensnared him and the high divorce settlement … well okay, I have one thing to say to that: “pre-nup”. That she’s in a coma all the way over in America doesn’t sound too problematic, however, and that’s what I don’t like. Sure, it’s a bit harsh to try and get a divorce just because she’s in a coma, but if they were separated … there’s no real problem, is there?

Okay, Ashley can’t legally become Mrs. Marchant, but what does that matter? In this case, it comes down to Ashley feeling betrayed because of her childhood in foster care. She thought she could trust him, and then he proposes and before he has a chance to come clean (which he was about to do), the Richard Mason of the story comes a-knockin’, because thanks to the internet, he’s heard that there were Things Going On. Couldn’t he just have phoned, sent an email or Facebooked or something? At the point when he shows up, the couple is just engaged anyway, so not quite the same thing as finding out when you’ve already walked down the aisle. Just sayin’.

Because she can’t trust him, she leaves. Conveniently, Mrs. Marchant dies in her sleep. Ashley starts a new life down south, inherits her grandmother who decided to have a change of heart and do her estranged grandchild right finally, and finds out she has relatives. Aww. And then Ashley gets a call about Blackwood having burned down (because CARELESSNESS CAUSES FIRE), comes back and goes all doe-eyed again and they live happily ever after.

Dunno, it just feels so … so … tame! And I’m not convinced that in 2011, someone being married would be that big a deal when it comes to being with them. Especially not when you’ve separated and live on two different continents. There’s nothing to make you believe how and why they fall in love either, aside from a strong physical attraction. (Hey, that sounds familiar!) You don’t necessarily pledge each other eternal love and live happily ever after just because you get a boner every time you look at them (literally or figuratively, depending on gender). When the original novel shines through – which is mainly toward the end – it’s nice, but at the same time, feels a bit … dishonest, maybe? Tacky? It doesn’t quite work.

The Jane Eyre inspiration is clear in The Forbidden Innocent, but it’s missed the point completely between the characters. Rochester and Jane might have an attraction to one another, but that’s not what makes their love story stand out. It’s the odd balancing of power and that it has a female lead who knows what she wants and stands up for it. Can’t really say the same about Ashley, which is a shame. Was expecting more.

I’m feeling generous, so maybe 2.8 out of 5 countryside walks. It could have been a heck of a lot better, but it wasn’t criminally atrocious either. And besides, it was a quick read. Took me a little over an hour to read about half of it, so mustn’t grumble, really.

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