Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter offers an 1870s love triangle between an Austrian empress, a dashing British cavalry captain, and an independent-minded young woman who dreams of becoming a photographer. Perhaps best described as a historical romance rather than historical fiction, the novel provides some interesting period detail, but lacks the passion and drama that would make this a truly compelling read.
The Story: Charlotte Baird, a young British heiress with a keen interest in photography, is about to accept a marriage proposal from Captain Bay Middleton, a handsome cavalry officer with a reputation for being as good with the ladies as he is with horses. But the arrival of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, to the English countryside, throws their plans into upheaval. Sisi, considered to be the most beautiful woman in Europe, has come to England to fox hunt, and hires Bay to be her pilot or hunting guide. But Sisi, who is unhappy in her marriage to the emotionally distant emperor, begins to appreciate Bay for more than just his horsemanship.
My Thoughts: I was intrigued when I read the description of The Fortune Hunter, maybe because the comparison of the real-life Empress Elisabeth to Princess Diana peaked my interest (I can’t help it; I was a young teen when Diana Spencer married Prince Charles!) So, yes, I confess—I wanted to know more about Sisi, and I thought this might be an entertaining book, if admittedly on the light side.
Oddly, though, Sisi is by far the least developed of the three sides of the love triangle. I did a bit of research on Sisi while reading the novel, and there seems to be much about her life that would furnish promising material for a novelist . . . but Goodwin barely scratches the surface, and her portrayal of Sisi is shallow. Readers will gain little knowledge about Sisi beyond that she was an unhappy beauty who did not like to be photographed.
I could not find much emotional connection to any of the characters, and I doubted the strength of the characters’ emotional connection to one another. At times, the characters’ actions appeared so inconsistent and confusing that I wasn’t certain of the author’s intent (Bay, for example—womanizing jerk or romantic hero? I’m still not sure). For a love triangle, everybody seemed curiously passionless. And, honestly, where's the fun of reading a romance novel in which the romance part isn't really juicy?
I felt, as well, that the novel lacked a very strong historical context, although there were some interesting details about the early stages of photography. Goodwin includes some unlikely and ahistorical elements that seem designed to please 21st century readers. Charlotte’s gay best friend, for example, is too overtly flamboyant for Victorian England, a time and place in which male homosexuality was a criminal offense, and men wearing bright colors were highly suspect. The novel's ending, as well, struck me as something that simply wouldn't have happened in the 1870s.
All told, The Fortune Hunter was not my cup of tea, but others may find more here to like. For those interested in 19th century social customs, fashion, and royalty, this may be right up your alley.
My rating for this novel is 2 out of 5 stars. The Fortune Hunter will be released on July 29.
I received an advance readers’ copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.