Spellbound by Nora Roberts (Review)

I recently read Spellbound by Nora Roberts. Having not read any of her work, I thought this novella would be a way to dip my toe in the pool without overcommitting. The book got high ratings at Amazon.com, but I thought it was overrated.

Spellbound is the story of a famous, overworked photographer, Calin Farrell, who has a special gift. He dreams of a battle and a beautiful, red-haired Irish woman waiting for him, a woman he can’t help but love with all his heart. Or are they visions, the result of a bewitching spell?

Bestselling author Nora Robert starts there and twists and turns sometimes so fast I didn’t know which direction I was facing. That can be a good thing, but not when I have to read the same paragraph several times to figure out what it means.

The most egregious thing she does is to switch viewpoint, right in the middle of a scene, right in the middle of a paragraph. The first time it happened, I thought, “Ooh! A great example for my “Stupid Story Mistakes” podcast. But then she did it again, and again, and again. Maybe I should’ve used it as a stupid story mistake anyway. I think I may have a new pet peeve.

He brought his hands to her shoulders, torn for a staggering instant as to whether to pull her closer or push her away. In the end he eased back, held her at arm’s length.

She was beautiful. She was aroused. And she was, he assured himself, a stranger. He angled his head, determined to handle the situation.

“Well, it’s certainly a friendly country.”

He saw the flicker in her eyes, the dimming of disappointment, a flash of frustration. But he couldn’t know just how deeply that disappointment, that frustration cut into her heart.

He’s here, she told herself. He’s come. That’s what matters most now. “It is, yes.” She gave him a smile, let her fingers linger in his hair just another second, then dropped them to her sides. “Welcome to Ireland and the Castle of Secrets.”

Do you see how the viewpoint changes from his to hers somewhere between “He saw the flicker” and “cut into her heart”? I’m not sure exactly where. The text inbetween could work from either point of view. At this point, I felt like a disembodied spirit wafting through the story. Now, this is a story about magic, but I still don’t think that’s what the author intended.

Spellbound by Nora Roberts

From Amazon.com’s Book Description: Leave it to number-one bestselling author Nora Roberts to spin a tale that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, modern-day mishaps and ancient curses, obsession and undying passion. She’ll have you cheering for love to win the day as a man and woman discover just how deep their bond lies-and how some dreams are meant to be.

But in the final analysis, I simply didn’t understand the characters. I didn’t understand Calin, why he changed his mind. Extraordinary changes require extraordinary forces. And once it was established how he felt and what he thought, I needed something remarkable to persuade him before he changed his mind. And nothing did. And without this convincing conflict, I couldn’t identify with the character, and the story fell flat.

It’s the same problem we saw in The Mask of Zorro, but I’ll save that for another day.



22 responses to “Spellbound by Nora Roberts (Review)”

  1.  Avatar

    Hi Tim, I don’t really see the viewpoint changing in the paragraph you mentioned. It is still his viewpoint. He is trying to figure out how deeply he has effected her. His answer comes in the next paragraph, where you get her perspective.
    I don’t know. I think I’m already in way over my head!

  2. J. Timothy King Avatar

    You can’t be in over your head. Much of this is hocus pocus, anyway; it’s subjective. As long as you say how the piece truly affected you, you’re on solid ground.

    But he couldn’t know just how deeply that disappointment, that frustration cut into her heart.

    So you’re saying this is what he’s thinking, that he’s observing a disappointment in her eyes, but he doesn’t know how deeply that disappointment affects her. Yes, that’s possible.

    I probably myself would have taken it this way were it not for the next sentence: “He’s here, she told herself. He’s come.” This is clearly inside her head. So when did the point of view switch, and why?

    When a writer switches point of view, it’s like changing scenes in a movie. He has to give me some reason to expect the scene to change and then make a clean transition. Maybe someone walks out of the frame through a door, then suddenly we’re looking at the next room, from the other side of the door. That’s a scene change, and the person walking out of the frame anticipated the change. In prose, the transition can be as simple as putting a section break. We end one scene and we start the next, now from a different perspective. But when I’m reading along and I’m in one character’s head and then suddenly I’m in another character’s head, I get confused. So I don’t know where the scene change occured, and I need to re-read that part of the prose a few times just to figure out what I missed, and that disrupts the story for me.


  3.  Avatar

    Perhaps if she had begun the next paragraph with “It is, yes” the viewpoint change would of been more obvious. But, that’s not always how the thought process works.
    I don’t see it as a scene change. The scene doesn’t change until the conversation is over.
    I look at it as a thought conversation.
    As readers we are able to hear the words and thoughts simultaneously back and forth.

  4. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Maybe it would’ve helped. I don’t know. You’re right that it’s not really a scene change. But it is a new shot, a change of focus. And that’s why I was thrown by it, because I saw nothing that anticipated the change. I guess I just get confused by thought conversations, being able to hear inside multiple heads at once.


  5. HeidiW Avatar

    I am sorry about the confusion some are having with ANY book by Nora Roberts. She can’t write a bad book. Maybe you should go back to Dr. Seuss!

  6. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Heidi, Nora is a lucky writer to have fans like you. No joke. I might also say the same thing about Robert Heinlein, that he never wrote a bad book. (Even though I know that any writer can write a bad book.) What I’ve found since I wrote this review is that Nora just isn’t my cup of tea. But then again, I’m picky.


  7. Tirya Avatar

    It’s weird. Nora Roberts has been one of my favorite authors for quite some time, and I’ve enjoyed nearly all of her contemporary romances. It wasn’t until I took a writing class that discussed the concept of Point of View that I realized just how much “head-hopping” she does in her novels.

    That doesn’t make them any less enjoyable for me – I still like her stories and her tone. It just made me wonder if her earlier novels (the ones that were first published) were written in the same manner, or if the “head-hopping” has developed as she has become more successful, in the same way that Stephen King’s self-editing has gone by the wayside as he has become more famous. After all, what editor is going to tell Nora Roberts “You really shouldn’t do that”?

  8. Merl Avatar

    Um, with all due respect TimK, I’m a little puzzled as to how you read “Spellbound” and picked out a viewpoint switch as the most pressing matter at hand?

    Don’t get me wrong, I found the jump between the characters’ asinine thoughts irksome too–not because I had trouble following who was thinking what, but more because their thoughts sounded like they were merely products of a bad romance novel. Oh wait, they were products of a bad romance novel.

    Maybe I’m being too critical. Not all of the writing was bad. I was happily surprised when I came across this line:

    “Mockingbirds sang as he clambered over stone walls into fields where cows grazed on grass as green as emeralds.” (p.63)

    Such dazzling poetry is rare to be seen. Clever Nora even managed to fit in an ounce of alliteration! Hurrah!

    Essentially, this story reminds us of all the reasons why cliches are universally scorned. I really do commend “Spellbound” for its ability to not only track down all the unforgivably bad lines from all the unforgivably bad movies, books, and Hallmark cards, but to then compress them into an 80 page novella. I don’t think it polite for me to go into detail about exactly how many ways this book butchers the art of storytelling, and indeed, the English language itself, but I will ask this … aren’t ROMANCE books supposed to be ROMANTIC? Because the way I look at it, I spend so much reading time laughing at lines like “she mated with him, their rhythm ancient and sure” (p. 40), that instead of feeling aroused, I feel molested.

    Don’t be victims of badly written erotic fiction any longer! Come into the light. (I am aware the latter line has probably already been celebrated in some Nora Roberts book somewhere as a conveniently useful pun).

    Oh, and HeidiW, I sincerely hope you go back to Dr. Seuss and take a closer look. I think after engaging even with Dr. Seuss, you will start to doubt your declaration that Nora Roberts could never write a bad book. You might even begin to wonder whether she could ever write a good book? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that “The Cat In The Hat” is a more gratifying image than Spellbound’s leading lady watching her hero “stroke the cat into ecstasy” then wishing she could make “soft, secret sounds in the night” with him (p.16).

    Happy reading, folks.

  9. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Thanks for commenting, Merl. I enjoyed reading your review.

    I had written the above review some time ago, as you can see from the dateline. I don’t remember the clichés. But unless they’re obvious, I usually don’t care. In other words, I like a sappy romance as much as the next boor, and I’ll take effective sap over beautiful language any day. 🙂

    However, I do remember feeling not very much of anything for the characters in Spellbound, and that’s probably the weak point in the story. Another Nora Roberts novel I tried to get through several times, and I still haven’t made it. Somehow, I always lose sympathy for the main character. Strike two?


  10. Merl Avatar

    Ah yes, I agree with you on that point, TimK. Looking at the book seriously, I also found that the characters were painfully flat. I think what really bothered me about this little book was that it tried to do too much in too little space … I mean, come on — it tries to mix Romeo-and-Juliet romance with epic fantasy in 80 pages and that just CANNOT work. Here is a vague layout of what happens:

    -Some shallow American photographer who’s always been prone to having an “overdeveloped” imagination has a few dreams about some hot red-haired chick and decides he wants to go to Ireland for some reason.

    -He goes to Ireland and all of a sudden ends up in some weird fantasy land that is never properly explained where he gets snogged spontaneously by same hot red-head from dreams.

    -Decides to stay in hot red-head’s house even though he thinks she is insane because she lives alone with her cat, wears cloaks, practices witchcraft and claims that he is her lover from another life.

    -Continues to stay at hot red-head’s house even though she keeps getting weirder and weirder then only decides to sex her when evil wizard Alisdair appears and dream-rapes hot red-head.

    -Shallow photographer and hot red-head hang out for a few pages. They fight about something unimportant.

    -Evil wizard Alisdair tries to defeat hot red-head and make her his sex-slave.

    -Hot red-head prepares to kill herself cos she thinks shallow photographer doesn’t love her.

    -Shallow photographer runs off into the forest for some reason. Bumps into hot red-head’s dead mum and suddenly realizes he is in love with hot red-head.

    -A horse and a sword appear from somewhere and suddenly shallow photographer is buff knight who rushes off to save hot red-head.

    -Evil wizard Alisdair (another character whose motives and back-story is never explained) is defeated and hot red-head and shallow photographer have a happy sexually-promising ending in the Castle Of Secrets.

    You would think I wouldn’t care this much about a book I hate, but I happen to be writing an essay on it for a university subject called Popular/Genre Fiction. The topic is: “The romance is typically regarded as occupying the lowest rung on the hierarchy of genres. With close reference to Spellbound, discuss why this might be so.”

    Good times. And strike two for Nora, indeed TimK. Are you a Twilight fan?

  11. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Twilight is on my bookshelf, and has been since long before it was a household name, but I haven’t read it yet, believe it or not.


  12. Jacey Avatar

    I don’t think Spellbound was really the right choice for your first Nora Roberts book. It’s not one I’ve enjoyed – and I’ve read about 98% of her books. She’s written some fantastic books – and a few not so fantastic. I guess no one is perfect all the time.
    But their are some very well written Nora Roberts books – give one of her others a go.

  13. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Hi, Jacey. Right now I’m wrestling through Northern Lights. I’m desperately trying to reach the end, and the end’s not coming fast enough. So maybe that one wasn’t for me, either. It took me a hundred or so pages for the story to grab me, and her characterizations frequently leave me scratching my head.

    Of course, suspense is not my favorite genre. But I enjoyed more fully the Kathy Reichs book I read—I think it was Déjà Dead—and I have a couple more of hers on the shelf. Not sure what to do with Nora, though. I’m inspired by her personal story, but not falling in love with her fiction.


  14. Kelsey Avatar

    Haha I love Merl’s spoiler on the book. I just read Spellbound as my first and probably only Nora Roberts book. There is absolutely no character development whatsoever and I had no idea what they were even arguing about. One minute they’re fine and the next, one’s upset. Also I didn’t understand how he thinks she’s insane but still decides ehh.. im still gonna have sex with her. To be honest I only finished it because it was the only book on my nook and I didn’t have anything to do in between my classes. I came across this site because I wanted to see if other people felt the same way I did and it turns out someone felt exactly as I did. sorry for being malicious but this book caused a lot of confusion. As a side note though,I guess it had good potential, but it was way too fast. If it had perhaps another 200 pages to build it’s characters, the background story, the plot, and the final battle scene it could’ve been a really good fiction novel

  15. Mina Avatar

    I have noticed Nora’s writing has dipped dramaticly towards bad writing. Her heroes are just not interesting enough. I recently read Tribute and that was pure cr@p. Read High Noon after that and although it was marginally better it was still missing something.

    Gone are the days of Sweet Revenge and Public Secrets. The interesting, real characters that you just got to love. You knew they’d end up together somehow but wanted to find out exactly how. Now they meet and that’s it. It’s a given. No problems between them to be overcome they just are a couple.

    I have always tried to stay away from the Harlequin books. They are just more than cr@p.

  16. Fotis Avatar

    My english is not very good, but the passage mentioned above looks fine to me. The writer interrupts for a comment while we are following the story on the mind of the protagonist. That’s not really breaking any hard rules of writing for the average reader, and it’s no sin in my book. It’s not great technique by academic standards, but it does the job.

    When we study the mechanics of literature too hard, we forget what really counts. We read about POV contracts and how they should not be broken and dozens of rules are imposed on us. Meanwhile the rules are broken all the time in best selling literature.

    It’s probably because these guys never thought about the rules, the use them intuitively. Here is an example. I type at 90 words per minute using only 2 fingers on each hand, I don’t have to look at the keyboard and I’m pretty sure my technique is a great waste of time and energy. I could probably do 150 words if I knew blind system that uses all fingers (touch typing you call it in english?). I’m still faster than many typists, even professionally trained ones and that’s what counts. In 2 decades of typing I never had an typing related injury so no problem in that department either.

    When I read a Stephen King novel, it’s obvious that there is very little “literature” in it. There is not much art in the actual words or the handling of language and that’s evident even to people like me who do no have the sensibilities of a native english speaker. King’s english skill is more or less that of an average university student, and I don’t mean a literature student!

    The stories work. King or the lady that wrote this book. I found this book entertaining and I’m a male. King is also entertaining. That makes best sellers. Perhaps in 100 years nobody will remember this lady that pops 4 or 5 books every single year. She will not be up there with the greats. King will probably survive but not due to his words, but because he has hit his culture strong enough. It’s obvious that he doesn’t spend that much time in writing his books either. In Nora’s case, I would believe it if somebody said that these books were written by a 14 year old girl. The imagery, the style, the sentimentality, all point to this direction. I bet she has 4 daughters and each one get assigned one book per year.

    Best selling literature does something for us. In King it’s suspence, for this writer it’s something else. For the vampire story girl King attacked at some point it’s again something completely different. A teen sentimentality? I don’t know. As you say in america, these books are good reads, it doesn’t matter if they are not very good books. It’s sad when mediocrity attacks mediocrity as in King vs Meyer. These writers all use solid approaches on commercial writing and that’s what counts.

    We can find weak spots in everything successful. Friends, the TV series is one example. But they never spent months to write an epeisode, did they? Fast TV production, good results considering the time it takes. These novels are like that. Hot writers have to keep writing until the next sensation comes up. It’s their small window in success they have to make the most. They are pressed to write and they press themselves to write. I guess it’s about 4,000 words a day followed by a very limited editing cycle. The first draft is probably the final one in this category, and they do a great job.

    I have deep respect for anything that sells a million copies on paper so cheap it will not stand a week of sunshine without turning yellow. Most of us can only dream to see a tired copy aging in a rotating airport stand somewhere, ready to be recycled or abandoned in a cafe after finishing it.

  17. Merl Avatar

    Fotis makes a fair point. Popular media is generally processed at a rapid rate, thus Nora wouldn’t have the need to ponder for hours over every sentence. I really hope, however, she doesn’t have fourteen year olds writing her steamy love scenes – I’d be quite mortified, I don’t know about you, Fotis?

    I, like you, have a respect for those who can produce something which sells millions of copies, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily have a respect for their work. I am a snob, I admit – I don’t like lazy writing.

    I actually think the TV show “Friends” has a far greater merit than “Spellbound” – it’s clever, funny, and manages to succinctly and successfully craft a story in twenty minutes. This being said, however, television is a completely different medium to the romance novella, and the writers of “Friends” did have six seasons within which to develop their characters.

    “Spellbound” is lame. That is my rather informal point, really – I have no great sweeping statements to make on popular/genre fiction versus literature. Each to their own, I suppose, eh Fotis?

  18. Fotis Avatar

    I would write very steamy love scenes when I was 14:)

    I believe that in this genre there is lots of ghost writing going on. Productivity is everything. I know one case where 4 out of 6 were assigned as work of hire.

    Regarding sitcoms, King Of The Hill, an american cartoon series shows skill that is very hard to find in literature. Sitcoms appear to be static and cyclical in plot but they are very demanding at this production level. Many successful writers wouldn’t be able to deal with a sitcom, even with a large team. Lots of art goes into sitcoms. I enjoy them for what they are and I respect them.

    As you say Merl, each to their own. It’s not a good book by any standard. In Greece this type of book is called an “arlekin” due to the publisher of the most successful series or a “viper” due to Viper Nora, an old series of books in this genre. It’s considered cheap pink literature, worthy of tired middle aged housewives with no love life. Something to buy with a degree of guilt and hide in the bottom drawers. But in it’s present revival it’s not in cheap mass market editions, it’s actually pretty strong in decent paperback editions that retail at 18 euro or about 26 USD. It’s advertised next to actual “litelary” literature or in its place. I’m borrowing the term “literary” from amazon.com which actually has such a category next to genre fiction.

    We have a writer in this genre in Greece that sells in the hundreds of thousands while interesting literature sometimes sells 5,000 units. This is an 11 million country btw. One of these books got over 200,000 units. That must be equivalent to 6 million copies sold in USA.

    Spellbound is not really a good book, but I read a lot and there is something to learn from in every book. It’s one step above the shop opera because no soap is advertised in it and you actually go into the trouble and expense to visit a store and buy the book. I have to give Nora that!

    My point is that the author did not really mean this book to be judged by high literature standards or even the basics of storytelling and even composition. Those who read it do not really think of it as worthy literature either. It’s a pasttime. It contains some imaging and some character power, it fills the void of boredom without degrading the reader. Actually it’s romantic and that’s not a bad thing, it’s good for the soul I guess.

    Imagine Nora browsing the web and hitting this thread. She would probably feel sorry for us nitpicking this book:) She would also be amazed!

    After reading more than 350 books on writing (yes, three hundred), I have had my share of rules and theory. I have noticed that in USA people general believe that literature can be taught and judged objectively while in Europe we have the opposite point of view. Approaching literature into science imposes rules, methodology, it leaves room for criticism from a “scientific” and absolute right vs. wrong point of view. But is this the right approach?

    What the writing and theory books typically fail to point out is that there are worthy elements in most books. Genre fiction is an artform, it takes skill and dedication and it’s not as manipulative as we sometimes think. It has always existed and it always will. We don’t need to waste out time approaching it with the wrong attitude. Did you read my post or were you too busy analyzing the mistakes in the paragraphing and the segmented sentences? I’m not good with english but I could do a better job in paragraphing because its rules are universal, right?

  19. Robert Dunstan Avatar
    Robert Dunstan

    There is an awkward change of viewpoints there. It goes from his viewpoint, then to an omnicient POV (that sentence), then to her character.

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    I havenl read the full book of Nora Roberts but I do know that other novelists get stalked for there novels then there placed in others books and sabataged (Until we Meet Again) was one of them so was Never go back (lee Child)

  21. anonymous Avatar

    its interesting how someone take an idea and destroy before it ever makes a living

  22. anonymous Avatar

    I have found that too many novels have been stolen from other novelists destroying there careers

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