The Princess Trap takes very well trod territory in romance and breathes fresh life into it.
Plot: Cherry Neita is turning thirty, and her work as an HR administrator at a private British school for overprivileged white boys is not particularly thrilling. But it’s stable and reliable, just like Cherry herself, and it helps ensure that her chronically ill but brilliant sister is able to pursue her academic dreams without sacrificing her health. Plus, she enjoys her very affordable hobby of what can only be described as nuclear flirting, laying waste to men’s senses in every direction. When an attractive man shows up at the school, a rare occurrence, Cherry is sent to use her powers to investigate. Unsurprisingly, he’s immediately under her spell, and before they know it, they’re making dinner plans. Only Ruben isn’t just an attractive guy looking to invest in the school, but a bastard prince looking for a haven for bright, underprivileged children to receive a quality education. If he can also get laid by a beautiful woman while he’s at it, why not, right? Except he has something of a reputation, and one deeply unpleasant interaction with a paparazzi later, Ruben has to explain to Cherry why apparently they’re engaged, and that it’s best they stay that way for a bit. Before they even get to dinner. What could go wrong? Shenanigans ensue.
This was my first Hibbert novel, way way back in the Before Times. It has recently made its way to audiobook, and I was in something of a slump, so I decided it was time to revisit the kingdom of Helgmore. The characters are three dimensional, including side characters that get little time on the page. The actual description of the book paints Ruben as your standard alphahole rake with more money than sense, but that couldn’t be further from who he is on the page. Yes, he has the confidence built from a lifetime of having everything he wants at his fingertips, but he does not treat people (and certainly not women) as disposable entertainment. He is proud of his philanthropy, rather than pointlessly hiding it so we can have some big reveal in the third act that actually he isn’t as big an asshole as the first 2 acts led you to believe. His traumatic childhood is not used as fodder to explain away selfish, abusive conduct, but the source of his compassion, empathy, and fears. This is really his book and his story arc that we follow.
Cherry comes to us a fully formed adult who behaves like a grown up. She doesn’t really need to learn very much except how to reassert herself in a new and uncomfortable situation, and that’s also entirely fine. Cherry is funny and smart and loyal and confident in a way I think most of humanity is envious of. Her life has been pretty small, but presented with injustice, Cherry is the first to stand up and put everything on the line to make things right. If I had one complaint about Cherry’s depiction is that there are things that are very much in flux in her life. She seems fairly happy at the start of the book, but she also does not hesitate to drop her entire life for a year and quit her job, which isn’t actually very good. That’s a perfectly good place to start, but we never really get closure on this. She doesn’t really have the space to explore what she wants to do with herself now that she’s been given a one in a million opportunity for complete reinvention. All we know at the end is that she is happily married and with a kid (something she never seemed particularly interested in), but how else she fills her days, what else she’s discovered a passion for, we don’t even get a hint of.
This is, in my view, simply a reflection of Hibbert’s evolution as an author. This is one of her earlier books and gaps like this don’t really come up in her later work, so I don’t really hold it against her. Still, I’d love to know what Cherry’s up to now that her domestic life is sorted out.