Book: The Romance of Innocent Plots and Desperate Schemes (Tales of Willowton Kind Book 1) by Daria Doshrelli (2019)

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: Romantic Fantasy

Preferred Reading Environment: A private place where your ranting will go unnoticed.

Reading Accoutrements: Candy…maybe apple dumplings or apple pie moonshine…definitely NO PEAS.

Dear Reader,

Have you ever read a book and thought, “This is not what the blurb made me think it was?” Sometimes, that’s a good thing – even occasionally a great thing – because the plot takes you on an unexpected adventure. Sometimes, though, it makes you long for the plot-you-thought-could-be, and you are disappointed…

I picked this book up thinking it was going to be a Regency- or Victorian-era romance about a Duke or an Earl who was avoiding all of the debutantes in the marriage mart and ended up accidentally falling in love with his best friend when they pretended to be engaged – you know, a typical light-hearted historical romance. That is NOT what I got.

The Romance of Innocent Plots and Desperate Schemes is the first in a series about the unique realm of Willowton, where matchmaking is the only trade.

Yup. You heard that right. The only thing the people of Willowton do is help people find their true love and get married. Apparently, people from different realms even pay to send their hopeless cases to this place to be educated in the art of snagging a suitor before they are shoved into the town square with all the other hopeless-case singles and try to find that elusive One True Love.

The main character and narrator of this tale is Hero, the son of the town’s most successful matchmaker who adds peas to every dish she cooks – much to the dismay of Hero…and her husband, who mostly sleeps or hides in the barn. Hero grew up watching his mother take the ugliest girls and put them through hours of beauty treatments until they are beautiful enough to catch the eye of a worthwhile boy and sign his marriage certificate. He doesn’t fully understand everything that is happening in his house while his mother trains and prepares the girls for finding their match, but at the age of eight (that’s right, eight) he is sent out with all of the other Willowton boys to enroll in a matchmaking school.

His first matchmaking school starts the boys out with a list of all of their flaws, telling them that they cannot hope to find perfection in a mate if they themselves are not perfect either. It goes downhill from there. After six months, Hero decides to try a different matchmaking school…and then another, and another, and another… until by the time he is 16, he has failed at a multitude of matchmaking styles. By the time he is 21 (I think…the book actually wavers between him being 18, 19, 20, and 21…sort of like Doshrelli couldn’t make up her mind how old he really was as she wrote it), when the majority of the plot takes place, he has completely lost faith in the institution of marriage. In fact, he is suspicious of all of the matchmakers and women in town because he thinks they are all plotting to trap him into a horrible marriage with some woman or other who will make him eat peas and be miserable until he dies.

Then, one day while sitting in the square, he meets Anatrice. Anatrice isn’t plotting to marry him because she is waiting for her prince, the man she loves, to come get her. Unfortunately, she arrived a little earlier than her prince and she is completely out of funds. Hero offers Anatrice room and board in exchange for pretending to be his fiance so he can thwart all of the marriage-minded-matchmakers in their dastardly plots to marry him off. When Hero and Anatrice become best friends, Hero realizes that she’ll leave him when her prince arrives. So he hatches a plan to make her realize that marriage is a trap and love is a lie…maybe then Anatrice will stay in Willowton and be his best friend forever.

Just to be clear, (because I was totally confused when I started reading) this book takes place in a fantasy world (not the “magical fantasy” kind…just the “different than this world” kind). A lot of the clothes and mannerisms read like it’s set in late-1800s or early-1900s England, but then they make comments that don’t fit the time period or the country and then later in the book they start talking about other realms and…needless to say, the setting is not laid out very well at the beginning of the book.

In Doshrelli’s defense, the beginning of the book is narrated by an 8-year-old Hero, so all the world-building you really get early on are comments about the licorice at the candy store, how many peas his mother cooked into his meals, and innocent narration of girls being stuffed into poofy clothes and hoping for flowers from the boys in the town square. When I first started reading, I liked that Doshrelli decided to narrate this story from Hero’s perspective as he grew up. But then, as Hero supposedly got older, he…didn’t. He never really mentally matured past the age of 10. He’s a grown man who throws fits about peas, for goodness’ sake! I understand not liking a specific vegetable, but come on man. Grow up a little! And it gets worse:

For example, at the age of 16, Hero reads a novel – a work of fiction – for the first time ever. The book, which he stole from one of the girls in Willowton in an attempt to understand the female mind, is about a siren who lures unsuspecting sailors to their deaths until the man she loves comes and professes his love to her. After reading this book, Hero believes that all women are monsters who are trying to lure unsuspecting men to marry them so they can stay women instead of becoming sirens or whatever monster they are. When he confronts his mother with this knowledge, and she tells him it’s fiction like the stories of pirates he read as a child, he doesn’t believe her “because she’s a woman and obviously lying to keep her secret.” He’s completely disconnected from reality and I pretty much lost interest in the book entirely at this point.

Granted, I also agreed with him that the matchmaking schools and the matchmakers themselves needed to be…modified. Some of them are truly horrible. So, I read on, hoping that somehow Hero would mature.

Anatrice arrives when Hero is (possibly) 21 – way too old to be single in the town of Willowton, especially considering his matchmaking lineage. She comes from a place that is apparently much different from Willowton, which is much more cutthroat because there is no universal basic income provided by the matchmaking services of the town. Anatrice has common sense, although she is incredibly sensitive to criticism; at one point in the book, she cuts off all of her hair because Hero says it’s ugly. And she’s supposedly 22! In a nutshell, these two drive me to drink. Where did I put that apple pie moonshine…?

Anyway, they have one of my biggest romance-novel-relationship-pet-peeves: the “I can fix him and then he’ll be perfect” trope.  Anatrice basically teaches Hero about reality. He learns about his town’s universal basic income, joins the town council, and eventually realizes that love and marriage aren’t bad…but he still believes that babies are made when a man and a woman kiss on the lips. Don’t get me wrong, Hero needed to learn those things and it is perfectly understandable that people in a relationship grow and change. But Anatrice basically had to pull teeth to get Hero to the mental age of a 20-year-old guy and I still wouldn’t want to marry him because he is nowhere near mature enough. She’s kind of like his nanny. Hero basically left his mother’s home to go live with his new mommy. Ugh.

Alright, clearly this book had a lot of triggers for me. I picked it up thinking it was going to be my usual escapist story – you know, a typical light-hearted historical romance. Instead, I got a book with a setting concept that was only half-baked and a love story that made me cringe. The second book of the series focuses on Hero’s parents and the third focuses on his grandmother, so I don’t foresee a lot of growth of these characters unless it’s peripherally. I don’t really plan on finding out, though.

Have you ever picked up a book thinking it was one thing and been surprised? How did it turn out for you?

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