One of the most damning things you can say about a novel is "I didn't care about the characters". It must be on the top ten list of phrases an author never wants to hear. And yet, it is possible to enjoy a novel without caring two straws about the main characters. I know, because it's happened to me twice recently. I'm currently reading - in tandem with Les Mis which I keep for my lunch hour - a historical novel set in Restoration England (and a bit in Louis XIV's France) called "Dark Angels". The author, Karleen Koen, certainly knows how to spin a yarn. Intrigues, drama and court gossip abound. I'm engrossed - but do I care about the book's heroine? Not really.
I do know a little about Restoration times, most of it learnt by reading Jude Morgan's "The King's Touch" (still the Restoration novel to beat). But I don't know enough to identify which of the book's protagonists, except from the royal families, assorted mistresses and the odd duke, are real and which are fictional. If the heroine Alice Verney, maid of honour to Queen Catherine and Princess Henriette and daughter of a wily courtier, actually existed she may very well have been an admirable person. The picture Koen paints of her is not very flattering, though: she has her good points, like loyalty to her long-suffering employers, and she doesn't like Castlemaine which is always a plus. But her ruling ambition is to marry an elderly duke just to cheat his nephew, her ex-fiancé, out of his inheritance, and she interferes in her best friend's romance because she thinks her friend could do better (although she is penniless). Spite works well for a villain but less well for a heroine, and as for scheming, it should ideally be done with a bit of panache. Unlike Becky Sharp, the queen of minxes, Alice isn't really enjoying herself. She's only hanging on, trying grimly to survive the (sometimes literally) poisonous court atmosphere.
Funnily enough, though, it doesn't matter that the main protagonist is hard to warm to. She isn't positively dislikeable either, and the plot makes up for her shortcomings. However, I have to admit that the plot isn't the only thing that intrigues me - the book is also livened up by the odd appearance of an ace villain in the pleasant shape of a smooth, friendly poisoner. I know I probably should draw the line at poisoners, but it's been ages since there was any fresh meat on the villain market, and I'm not about to be picky, especially not for moral reasons.
My other example of plot-driven rather than character-driven reading fun is "My Last Duchess" by Daisy Goodwin, the largest part of which I read on the plane to New York without feeling fidgety once. I think I saw an article by Goodwin once, back when the anti-romance debate was in full height, where she defended the romance genre. She needen't have felt nettled by the anti-Mills&Booners for her own sake, though. "My Last Duchess" is set in the High Society of England and America in the 1890s, the sets are sumptuous, and the plot is mainly about love and relationships. But on one level, it is not the least bit escapist. One of the main delights of the novel is that you truly don't know what will happen: whether the heroine Cora Cash's marriage to an English duke will work out fine or prove to be a disaster. No-one can accuse Goodwin of skating over the difficulties Cora faces in the shape of a kittenish but tough mother-in-law, a resentful ex-mistress and her husband's reticence. The very last thing I felt like doing after having finished this novel was to marry into the English nobility.
Yet, again, I didn't really care about Cora much. She is depicted as shallow and spoilt and never really overcomes the brash American heiress stereotype. I didn't like her maid Bertha either, though we are probably supposed to. Her loyalty towards her mistress is mixed with a good dose of resentment and seems to have more to do with habit than any kind of affection. No, the strongest points of "My Last Duchess" are plot-related, not character-related: you simply want to know what happens next. This in spite of the fact that there is no cute villain in sight.