Nobody's Darling by Teresa Medeiros
The Pariculars: Historical Romance, 1998, Bantam, In Print
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Oh who the hell knows anymore! I've had a print copy of this languishing in the TBR for at least a decade. Seriously. My guess? Someone on a listserv a billion years ago recommended it. Or it could just be the old standby Wendy excuse of "It's a western. Like duh."
The Review: Here's a perfect example of what can happen when you let books sit in your TBR for close to a decade. Had I read this back when I actually, oh you know, bought it - I think I would have really, really liked it. But I've been reading romance for 16 years now and have gotten jaded. Also there are things that bother me now that didn't bother me 16 years ago. But I'm getting ahead of myself....
Esmerelda Fine is an orphan. Her mother was the daughter of a Duke, but instead of marrying the man Daddy had handpicked for her, she ran away from home to elope with her one true love. They settled in America and had two kids - Esmerelda followed by baby brother Bartholomew. Then Mommy and Daddy get cholera and die. Like her mother before her, Esmerelda keeps up the correspondence with her grandfather even though the old goat has effectively disowned the family and raises Bartholomew on her own. Then one day in merry old England, Grandpapa gets the letter that strikes fear in his shriveled-up, miserly heart. Bartholomew is dead and Esmerelda is heading to New Mexico to track down the outlaw who reportedly killed him.
Billy Darling is a bounty hunter, which in the eyes of most makes him no better than an outlaw. He's actually a wanted man at the moment thanks to a job gone bad, but the sheriff of Calamity, New Mexico isn't about to arrest him. In fact, they're playing cards together in the saloon when in walks a slip of a woman who pulls a derringer on Billy. She's spouting off about him killing her brother, which he most certainly did not - but convincing Esmerelda Fine of that is going to take some doing.
What follows is Billy and Esme getting things mostly squared away so we don't have too much of a Big Misunderstanding mucking up the plot. Esme wants to find her brother's whereabouts however, and it's apparent that Billy is the best tracker in the area. We all know where this is going, right?
I've read several books by Medeiros now and I've liked all of them to varying degrees, although all-out Squee! has eluded thus far. The dedication before the start of the book makes mention of the John Wayne / Maureen O'Hara movie, McLintock! which should give those of you who know anything at all about that movie what to kind of expect here. I suspect that's why I waited so long to read this - so scared I am of The Slapstick Humor Nightmare that can descend on "funny" romances. But Medeiros keeps it more charming than funny ha-ha and it mostly works.
The problem comes in from outside factors - namely the secondary characters. Billy is the baby of a family that is full of disreputable characters. After he and Esme hit the road, his outlaw brothers find them and Billy tells Esme to trust him, ties her up and gags her in order to protect her. Why? Because Dear Old Brothers ask if they can have a go at her after Billy is done with her. Esme proceeds to be terrified, Billy says no I don't like to share, and then they proceed to fool his brothers with some well placed moaning and groaning. And throughout the course of the book, as the plot advances forward, Esmerelda keeps having to spend time in the company of the Darling Gang. And as the reader I'm just to supposed to forget about this introduction?! Not to mention baby brother Bartholomew who....ugh. I could get past most of it during the reading of the book, but then we get a rosy, sunshiney sort of ending and I'm sorry - I can't get over the fact that Bartholomew is an asshole and Billy's brothers wanted to rape Esmerelda - well at least until they found out she could play "purdy music" on her violin.
Oh, and did I mention the Darling boys (including Billy) rode with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson? Look, I get it. History is written by the victors and just as many people believe Quantrill and Anderson were folk heroes as those who believe they were psychopaths. Here they are merely name-dropped. They are neither addressed as villains or heroes - but they are addressed in relation to the hero of a romance novel. Did I mention I was born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon? Yeah, issues. I haz them.
If you can get past the secondary characters who put the "problem" in "problematic elements" - the main romance itself is fairly light and charming. Esme and Billy have a nice banter and I'm a sucker for a road romance. There are moments in the story where both characters have to reconcile with their pasts and also address the fact that a Duke's daughter is just a wee smidge out of the league of a bounty hunter who wants to be a lawman.
I did feel at times the pacing suffered a bit (Part III of the book dragged on too long for me) and the villain is pretty thinly drawn, mostly serving as a device to move our couple through the plot and towards the happy ending. All of this sounds like I disliked the book, which I didn't. What ended up elevating it for me? The actual text. The actual book. We live in a world where yes, self-publishing is wonderful and traditional publishers are asking authors to keep up frenetic writing paces. As the reader? I don't always get a quality product. I'm sorry authors - but y'all know I'm speaking some truth right now. Nobody's Darling reads like a book that everybody took their time on. The author took time and care writing it. Her editor took time and care EDITING it. It's not even the best book I've ever read, but it reads like a frackin' masterpiece now - 17 years after it's publication date. It is, creatively speaking, a well-put-together story. Start to finish. I had real, obvious, issues with the book - truly I did - but not once did I contemplate DNF'ing this. I kept reading it because Medeiros MADE ME want to keep reading it.
So for that reason alone? I'm probably going to slap this with a higher grade than I suspect most of you think I should. The issues that bothered me (ugh, the Darling Gang!) are things that probably won't bother other readers and admittedly probably wouldn't have bothered me 16 years ago. But I'm older and crankier now - and bother me they did. Still, I think this is one worth reading and could totally see it as a "gateway western" for romance readers who don't normally go for the setting.
Final Grade = B-