REVIEW: The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson

This is the fifth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.

When an exotic beauty turns up unexpectedly in 19th Century West Country, it’s clear to everyone by her regal bearing that she must be a princess. The Worrall family – bored but romantic Cassandra, her clever American-born mother, and her skeptical father – take her in and proceed to fall a little in love with her. Experts arrive to bluster about her origins. And then the prodigal son Fred arrives home to meet her… But is she a con artist, or just a lovely lost girl?

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Friends, I wanted so much to like this book. I don’t read much historical fiction but I was ready to be converted. Canny girls pulling long cons! Race, gender, and identity in Georgian England! I’ve had Catherine Johnson recommended to me more than once, and Sawbones remains firmly on my TBR. I’ve been putting off writing this review because I just don’t have a lot to say about this one.

Frustratingly, the story Johnson tells in the afterword is much more interesting to me. I’d much rather have read a novel about Caraboo uneasily occupying the vacant role of Elizabeth Worrall’s daughter than the clichéd love-transcends-social-classes story I got. Cassandra is an insubstantial invention, and I found her romance subplot tedious, which is fine seeing as it didn’t go anywhere anyway.

Caraboo herself is absolutely charming – it’s easy to see how she beguiles the household into her illusion – which made me even more reluctant to support her romance with Fred. We’re meant to see that Fred, who has been awful to women in the past, has grown up and seen the error of his ways, but he is not once punished for his behaviour and instead gets the unlikely happy ending with the mysterious woman who was “not like other girls”. Honestly, I should have realised this book wasn’t for me when I saw “historical romance” and I would not have finished it if it weren’t on the shortlist. I MADE A COMMITMENT.

Other readers enjoyed the exploration of identity, and the psychological aspects to Caraboo – Mary Willcox’s entire subsummation into the persona she has created – are genuinely intriguing but not as in-depth as I would like. I liked the princess and I liked Mary Willcox, and I am fascinated by the way those identities intersect – but not enough to offset how irritated I was by the romance plot.

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