Review: Once Upon a Billionaire by Jessica Clare

Jessica Clare’s Billionaire Boys Club is a relatively new romance series that I’ve enjoyed from the very beginning, with a 5 star read for me in its second book, BEAUTY AND THE BILLIONAIRE. So it’s with great sadness that I have to say ONCE UPON A BILLIONAIRE was so not of the same quality that if it had been the very first book, I probably wouldn’t have continued with the series. Although the romance ended up in the right place when all was said and done, its ill-conceived hero and heroine affected my enjoyment of their HEA to the point that I almost feel guilty for having liked any of it at all.

Griffin Verdi, aka Viscount Montagne Verdi, younger brother of the Duke of Calcaire in the ruling family of Bellissime, is a member of the Billionaire Boys Club, but that’s all due to his own financial skills, not his royal bloodline. His snooty family all but disowned him after he moved to America, but they’re still happy to spend the money he sends them. All he asks in return is to be left alone with his work and his passion for archaeology, but even that is more than they can manage. Now that he’s required to attend his beloved cousin’s wedding as she becomes the first Bellissime Crown Princess to marry a commoner, it’s just Griffin’s bad luck for his sole personal assistant to be too sick to accompany him there. Desperation forces the proud billionaire to turn to his good friend and fellow club member, Hunter, for help. And payback is what prompts Hunter’s girlfriend, Gretchen, to surprise Griffin with the one woman who could unsettle him to the point of madness.

Maylee Meriweather may hail from a no-account Arkansas trailer park, but that doesn’t mean she can’t handle her boss’s last-minute call to help Griffin on his trip. She doesn’t have the fancy clothes, fancy laptop, or fancy anything to keep up appearances in Griffin’s circle. All she has is a can-do attitude, plenty of gumption, and an otherworldly ability to take away a person’s pain after a burn or other related injury. But when nervous flier Maylee mixes mojitos with her “happy pills” on Griffin’s private plane, her bedraggled appearance and drug-induced behavior threaten to end any chance of them getting along before they even land at their destination. Still, there’s something about Maylee that Griffin can’t seem to resist. If he could just manage not to insult her with every word out of his mouth, they might find something together that goes well beyond their temporary working relationship.

The plot of ONCE UPON A BILLIONAIRE is a fairly standard romance trope:  egotistical billionaire is thrown together with a sweet tempered woman totally below his standards, they clash on superficial differences but eventually succumb to their mutual physical attraction, ending up with an HEA only after the prerequisite Big Misunderstanding. It’s light and fluffy and utterly predictable, unlike the last two books in the series, and yet that’s not what bothered me so much. What made me nearly stop reading more than once was how both the hero and heroine were so broadly defined that it bordered on offensive in some spots.

Let’s begin with our billionaire hero, Griffin Verdi. From the first page of ONCE UPON A BILLIONAIRE, he comes across as the worst sort of condescending rich guy, barely civil to the other men he considers friends, and outright rude to Hunter’s girlfriend, Gretchen. It’s true that Gretchen gives as good as she gets, but it’s not like Griffin isn’t capable of basic courtesy to anyone not in his inner circle. Or is he? We’re led to believe that this innate boorishness stems from his royal upbringing, and yet he has a constant inner monologue about how much he hates his own relatives taking advantage of him and others without even so much as a simple thank you. So why wouldn’t he try to behave better than the people he resents? I suspect it was all in support of the conflict between him and his intended heroine. And yet for me, Griffin was nothing more than a faded copy of a Harlequin Presents hero. The arrogance and incivility were there, but any compelling reasons why a woman would find him irresistible in the face of such nonsense were missing in action. Even so, Griffin’s portrayal wasn’t half as problematic as what was in store for Maylee, the woman he supposedly learns to love.

Maylee Meriweather isn’t just from another world, she’s from an entirely different universe. Any woman not born and bred as royalty would be a challenge for Griffin, but a hick from the sticks is beyond the pale. Yet what I objected to wasn’t the extreme contrast per se, but the way Maylee was written as a cartoon character straight out of Dogpatch USA. She’s already a personal assistant to another billionaire, but she dresses like a bag lady and keeps track of her boss’s schedule on Post-It Notes. Every other word out of her mouth is “Lordamercy!” and she loves to tell everyone she meets that she was named for her Nana and PeePaw. Later we learn that her younger sisters are named Alabama and Dixie after their Daddy’s two favorite songs. (What, no brother named Skeeter?) Best of all, Maylee is a self-proclaimed “burn talker” who helps injured people by asking them to give the pain to her as she rubs the location of their burn. (Of course she is.)

This ongoing litany of outrageous personal details prompted a constant side-eye from me as the book went on, especially once it became obvious that Griffin would have been a complete jerk to Maylee without them. It really wasn’t necessary to portray her as an egregious example of nearly every possible stereotype of young women born and raised in the American South. And yet all that was missing by the time we met Maylee’s beloved drooling hound dog in Mama’s trailer back home was a moonshine still in the backyard and a visit to the local Waffle House. But because Maylee is the personification of the sweet but naive girl fresh off the turnip truck, she’s also able to win over every other person she meets with her kind and considerate demeanor, and even manages to help the Crown Princess of Bellissime herself with a curling iron burn on the night before the big wedding. Maylee also secretly hands out cash tips to everyone providing services to Griffin on his behalf, even though we’ve already been told that she’s barely getting by financially due to her need to send most of her salary to her family back in Arkansas. It’s this deep-seated kindness that ostensibly makes Maylee such a great personal assistant in spite of all her shortcomings in appearance and social behavior. It’s also apparently why she continues to take care of Griffin in spite of the cruel way he treats her right up until he decides she’s worthy of his affection after all.

Just because Maylee also gets the good end of the sweet Southern girl stereotype doesn’t make the rest of it even remotely acceptable. And just because Griffin finally pulls his head out of his ass after seeing himself in his mother and brother’s poor treatment of Maylee doesn’t mean his earlier abominable behavior is in any way excusable. There’s a way to depict a romance between a hero and heroine from vastly different worlds without potentially insulting readers, and then there’s what this book did. But I’m not quite ready to give up on the Billionaire Boys Club series, and I’m hoping very hard that the next book, ROMANCING THE BILLIONAIRE, will be a triumphant return to form. I don’t think I could handle this level of disappointment again.

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