6 stars. 10 stars! All the stars!
Almost Heaven is the book that made me fall in love with historical romance. I first read it in 1998 and it has sat firmly on my favorites shelf all this time. I’ve read it at least a dozen times, but I’ve had a long break and the last time I read it was probably 10 years ago. Reading it again now, I loved it just as much as I ever did.
There are so many scenes in this book that have stood out in my memory over the years, that I could still envision with perfect clarity. There is a scene in the beginning where Ian lights a cheroot and before I picked this up to read it again, I could still picture it like I just read the passage a moment ago. The way the light of the flame flickers on his face. How handsome he is. What Elizabeth is thinking. Then there are more complicated scenes, like the one where Elizabeth is by his side while he gambles at cards. It’s the most interesting gambling scene I’ve ever read (Nine Rules by Sarah MacLean notwithstanding, wink wink). Spellbinding story telling that stays with you.
This book is epic at 517 pages long! And they are 517 fully packed pages. The writing is dense and indulgent and captivating from page one. Judith McNaught packs so much in, there is something for everyone to love in this novel. We’ve got weekend dalliances, forced proximity (in an secluded Scottish cabin, no less), shocking betrayals and deceptions, a murder trial!, ballrooms and romantic dances, a family defying the entire ton, a dramatic gambling scene, long separations, a prodigal son, kidnapping, missing people, and so much more and not in that order.
Honestly, this book should be called Angst Heaven.
We’ve also got a wonderful romance with so much love and support and loyalty and yes, heartbreaking moments that lead to angst and longing and groveling and, most of all forgiveness between these two incredible characters.
Ian and Elizabeth have a bad, bad case of insta-love. They need each other so badly but they are jostled around by the events in the book, like two marbles in a jar being shaken. Unable to stop the chaos around them and helpless to avoid crashing into each other before being forced apart again.
Ian Thornton has been my book boyfriend for at least 20 years now. No scratch that. He’s my book husband, damn it! After all this time, he still stands out to me as the quintessential romance novel hero. He’s maybe not the most original at this point, but let’s not forget that this book was first published in 1989. He is one to swoon over, though. He’s everything you want in a hero. Gorgeous, worldly, brooding and gentle at the same time, so deeply in love with the heroine you can only pray a man will love you like that. When he hurts he hurts deeply. But when he loves he loves with the depths of an ocean.
I love a hero with a vulnerable heart.
Elizabeth is the opposite of Ian in almost every way. They’re both stunningly beautiful and both have tender hearts. But she’s tragically naive, young, titled, and not at all like the sophisticated women he’s usually with. But instead of it feeling like a mismatch, she complements him. She has a brother, Robert, who is horrible. He just uses his sister for his own gain the entire book. He never redeems himself. Which maybe makes Elizabeth’s relationship with Ian that much more wonderful because she was so alone and then she had this brilliant, beautiful man who is dying to take care of her. Not that she needed a man, but that is not the point.
Now, let’s talk about the dreaded Big Misunderstanding.
This entire book is basically one big misunderstanding after another. While I’m not normally a fan of that, in this case it never bothered me. Early on in the book their misunderstandings are fairly justified. They don’t know each other well. Elizabeth is very naïve and that influences how she behaves, while Ian takes her at face value, and so, he misunderstands her. Then there is a very long separation with no opportunity to talk things over. By the time they reconnect, their hatred for each other has festered for so long that it’s only natural for there to be some time before they work things out. And eventually they do, though not without some meddling from Elizabeth’s ever present duenna, Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones, who is my all time favorite chaperone.
It’s the end of the book where the big misunderstanding is frustrating. If Elizabeth just had a little more trust in Ian a near 100 page stretch of this book wouldn’t have happened. I have to admit that this stretch of the book is the part that has kept me from picking it up and reading it again when I’ve want to dive back into these characters. I kept thinking it’s long and tedious to read and you just want to scream at Elizabeth for her choices.
I just LOVE to read angst, longing, suffering… ugh, how much pain Ian is in. It’s heartbreaking. But I love it because of how sweet it is when they come back together. When they finally reunite it is so satisfying. And it turned out it wasn’t tedious, it’s as essential to read it as it is for the characters to go through it. Because it builds the foundation for them finally coming back to each other and believing they could survive anything.
And that is the greatest thing about Judith McNaught. She really commits to her story. So even after Ian and Elizabeth recognize their mistakes they have to work through them. They don’t just forgive each other in the span of a couple of pages. They actually go through the motions of acceptance and forgiveness. They sit down and talk it out, they don’t leave things unsaid. It’s not simply “I’m sorry”, “I’m sorry, too” hug and all is well. They really have to commit to changing and owning their mistakes and learning to trust each other before they get their HEA.
So there is a big pay off for a big misunderstanding in this case.
I always feel a little bereft after finishing this novel. It’s so full of character and emotion and so much happens. The end of the book takes place a full two years after the initial events of their relationship, and by the time you reach the last page it almost feels as if two years has passed since you read about it. That’s how much happens in between and you really feel their heartache after having been through so much.
Now, I’m not so enamored with this book that I’m incapable of seeing some flaws. In places, the dialogue is a bit cheesy. Judith McNaught writes a bit on the fluffy side. Characters are over laughers, lots of “shaking with mirth”, which over does what could be some truly poignant moments. She uses words like “perspicacity” and “cynosure”, that I’m pretty sure no one else would use in a romance novel, so there’s a bit of vocabulary olympics in reading her books.
Lastly, this book is All about the love. That’s not a complaint. That’s what I love about it. But there could be more steam. There are only two love scenes in the book, the first of which is around page 400. So be prepared to settle in for the long haul.
It’s worth it
A note about the kindle version of this book. It is riddled with errors. Typos galore, b’s instead of h’s, h’s instead of b’s, dropped periods all over the place, periods where they don’t belong. It’s tragic. There were way too many to report them all. I’ve read the paperback version many times and those are fine.