1.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
This is an earlier Kleypas work and though it is still fairly well written, it ultimately feels like an earlier work of a talented, but still developing, writer. The plot centers around an acclaimed author who saves the life of a notorious gambling club owner… and it meanders quite a bit, the dialog lacks the sparkle of her later works, and the characters are more one-dimensional than usual (she’s naive and innocent, he’s hardened and weary). Also, there are some real moral gray areas that you don’t often encounter in a regency romance (spoilers below), which, though different and arguably intriguing, also make the novel considerably less escapist than I like. I don’t regret reading it, but there were parts that were… surprisingly difficult to get through, and the most noticeable feeling I felt upon completion was relief. It’s not something I’d recommend, even to a Kleypas fan.
Sara Fielding is a famous author who usually lives in the country with her elderly parents. She has a long-time boyfriend (who hasn’t proposed yet because of a controlling mother), and a penchant for writing about the underbelly of London society. Her most famous work is about a prostitute named Mathilda, and when the novel starts, Sara is standing at a corner taking notes and eavesdropping in a shady part of town, doing research to lend her novels an air of authenticity.
Derek Craven is the famous proprietor of a gambling club – we start the novel seeing him attacked and slightly disfigured by two ruffians (whom we quickly learn were hired by his scorned ex-lover). Sara sees the scuffle, and thinking that a murder is about to take place, fires the pistol she always carries. Though she aims for the wall, she ends up killing one of the two attackers, and saving Derek’s life (something he’s surprisingly ungrateful about).
Thus starts a curious relationship between the two. Sara wants access to Derek’s club, to better conduct research for her writing, and Derek is increasingly antagonistic towards this idea – he is fiercely, almost illogically attracted to her, but doesn’t feel as though he deserves her.
It’s an oddly paced novel.
There’s a lot of back and forth between Sara and Derek and it’s hard to know how much of their attraction goes beyond the physical, and beyond their surface interpretations of each other. There’s definitely an element of forbidden fruit, where each desires the other because it’s not allowed, and shouldn’t happen. Add in Sara’s long-time boyfriend (whom she propositions twice, once before the start of the story, and once in desperation trying to forget Derek), an engagement to said boyfriend, a crazy ex-lover who hires criminals, sets fires and hatches kidnapping schemes (not to mention the spoilers below), and overall, this was just not a satisfying read for me. There were too many side plots and characters that didn’t feel fully developed, lots of moral gray areas that were touched upon, but then not really explored. It just made me feel ambivalent about the whole novel. I don’t necessarily regret the time I put into reading it, but I was almost relieved when it was over.
Let’s start with the spoilers – I know, I know, spoilers? Don’t the guy and the gal end up together? Yes. Of course.
However, you should know before reading this that there are some slightly more disturbing scenes in this book, especially relative to other historical romances. For one thing, our heroine is almost raped. Twice. She’s saved both times by Derek, but the first time, she is nearly gang raped because she’s caught in the middle of a mob, and the second attempt is actually an instigated, planned attempt as part of a twisted, spurned-love revenge side plot. That’s a little more attempted rape than I usually like to see in my escapist historical romance, so be warned.
Also, know that the book starts off with our heroine killing a man to save our hero – something that she seems disturbed by initially, and then promptly forgets That was a little hard to swallow from our supposedly innocent, virtuous heroine. Lastly, while the idea of reforming a rake is quite common, we see much more of Derek Craven’s past than we normally would. Usually we’re just told our rake has done terrible things, or has slept with many women – here, we’re explicitly told that, because of the destitute circumstances in which Derek grew up, he’s done a lot of shady things to get by, from grave-robbing and selling cadavers to medical students to prostitution and blackmailing his former (mostly married) lovers. There are readers who would welcome that level of specificity and character history, but for me, it was a little distracting, reading love scenes and thinking: he’s skilled because he was once a male prostitute… who robbed graves…
Other Things to Know:
Derek Craven first shows up in Then Came You which follows Lawless Lily, a headstrong woman who gambles and maintains a heartless façade to protect her young daughter. Also, if you’re a Kleypas fan, you’ll be interested in seeing Ivo Jenner show up as a convenient plot device (he eventually fathers Evie Jenner, who’s the main protagonist in Kleypas’s third Wallflower novel: Devil in Winter). There are a LOT of similarities between the two books, and I would say that the Evie/St. Vincent story (again about a more moral, upstanding young innocent and the reformed rake who doesn’t quite believe he deserves her) is by far the more interesting, well-written version of what we see here.
I read them in order, and while it was nice to see how well Lily and Alex (our protagonists from Then Came You) are doing, it wasn’t really necessary to the story, and I consider both weaker links within Kleypas’s otherwise strong resume.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
Lisa Kleypas is a best-selling author, and though she has focused more recently on modern romance, she is one of the queens of the historical romance genre. Compared to Stephanie Laurens, Kleypas tends to have more individualized characters, a better supporting cast, but less sensual/erotic love scenes. She’s less funny and her characters and scenarios are less light-hearted than Julia Quinn, but she her characters tend to have a greater degree of physical attraction/sensuality compared to Quinn.