2.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
Thomas’s romances are creative, interesting and intelligent — her characters talk of inveigling one another, postulate about art and politics, and debate internally about their prurient thoughts. This particular novel is no different: we have two well-crafted lead characters, both of whom are thespians (he is an agent for the crown and assumes a facade of staggering idiocy, and she is living under her malicious uncle’s thumb, hoping only for freedom for herself and her aunt). She traps him into marriage, he is suitably angry, cross purposes, misunderstandings, et cetera. It may just be me, but there is something about Thomas’s writing which leaves me a little cold — her characters are a little too hard-edged, and though this book at least had enough humor and sensitivity, I find her novels more admirable than enjoyable. I can read it and say: yes, this was clever, well-plotted, and shows and impressive range of vocabulary with a good attention to detail… but it doesn’t really draw me in. Her books have enough awards and reviews that there must be an audience, and I don’t exactly regret reading this, but I found the book more exhausting than entertaining: the characters, though interesting and larger-than-life, are a little too much, somewhere between superhero and Don Diego, the villains, despite the eventual explanation, a little too one-sided devil, and the plot twists… mostly tiring.
Spencer (usually referred to as Penny by his brother and close friends), Lord Vere, has been a secret agent for the crown since he was a teenager. Though we don’t learn the exact details until near the end of the novel, we’ve given to understand that his mother’s death has somehow haunted him, and that he masks himself as a bumbling, blathering idiot so that no one will question the number of times he turns up near a crime scene, or while various secrets are being exchanged. He made the decision to become a secret agent whilst still a teenager, and used a horse riding accident and a subsequent concussion as an excuse for his transformation (before the accident, he was apparently quite the scholar). Now, even his younger brother Freddie thinks him a complete moron, one who forever prattles on about animal husbandry and clumsily stumbles and spill various things into the laps of debutantes and so on.
Elissande Edgerton has been living more or less as a prisoner within her own home — she has dutifully cared for her invalid aunt, who is addicted to laudanum and needs constant soothing and attention — and both Elissande and her aunt live in morbid fear of her maniacal, vindictive uncle. And Elissande’s uncle is truly malicious — he’s the type of man who burns all of his books when he finds out his niece derives joy from reading, scents all the nightgowns with cloves because he knows his wife hates the smell, and forces his niece and wife to smile, and pretend happiness and thankfulness for his benevolence (all without any servants or neighbors ever guessing). She is desperate to escape him, and almost does once, but feels too guilty about leaving her invalid aunt, and so when Lord Vere shows up, she decides to marry him (and then his younger brother Freddie, and then him again), as marrying a marquess will allow her and her aunt to escape.
There are a lot of plot twists in here — secret safes, murder, intrigue, assumed identities and decades-long buried secrets. Most are interesting, and though some are quite far-fetched, that isn’t ultimately what derails me as a reader. What gets increasingly annoying as the novel progresses is that we’re told what intelligent people our protagonists are, they’re survivors who have lived through the death of their parents, a life of intrigue and deception — yet they’re quite stubbornly moronic when it comes to each other. Penny spends the first half of the novel being upset that he’s been daydreaming about a fantasy companion, believes Elissande to be its embodiment, and then, disillusioned that she is not some pure manifestation of his daydreams, that she is instead complicated and sometimes deceitful. Elissande waffles back and forth between being an ingenious actor who has survived her uncle’s deceit to acting far more resigned, and at her uncle’s and eventually her husband’s mercy — as if the only thing she can do is react to their decisions, their anger, their illogic.
Also, some of it is just a little too over the top for me that no one, even Penny’s brother, ever guesses at the intelligence beneath, but Elissande figures it out within the first week of their meeting. That Elissande has never figured out any other way to fight back and be resilient to her uncle’s attacks. They’re capable of being outwardly very graceful and politically correct, but then quite vicious and vulgar in their fights; Penny in particular seems to realize some of his actions may hurt his wife… yet goes through with it anyway (he does this several times, despite feeling guilty each time afterwards, which gets wearisome). And the descriptions! At one point, Elissande wonders if Penny is “a man as clever as Odysseus who looked like Achilles and made love like Paris,” which is just a little too much for me to take seriously — and I’m reminded, again and again, that I should be taking these characters, and their life and death escapades, very seriously.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
Thomas’s dedication to detail and her ability to be quite creative in her settings and characterizations reminds me of Lisa Kleypas, while her liking of brooding, sometimes vengeful protagonists reminds me a little of some of Amanda Quick’s characters. I feel like her books must have an audience, but so far, after two books (Not Quite a Husband and this), I’m just not sure I’m that audience…