2.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
There are some lovely details and characterization, not the least of which is a female protagonist who is ambitious, confident, determined, and very, very intelligent. The way she’s described she could almost be the male lead, which is kind of great! Also, there are some nice side plots and characters who are interesting and are allowed to act in sometimes surprising ways… but what ultimately weighs this novel down is a male protagonist who comes across as being a bit too easy to manipulate (where’s the fun in that?) and the overriding tension holding the main couple apart doesn’t feel like it’s novel-length sustainable. I still enjoyed it enough to finish it, but it’s certainly not at the top of my recommended list. (I have to add the caveat that if you like fashion, or regency-era fashion, you might still enjoy this… I found the details about dressmaking a little overwhelming, but someone who’s interested in that field might find those details intriguing.)
Marcelline Noirot is a widowed single mother who’s trying to build a dressmaking empire. She’s fought and manipulated her way into the London market, and though she’s beginning to gain some traction, she knows that she needs more powerful patronesses, specifically the upper crust of London’s ton, to really take off. She’s therefore decided that she needs to dress the future Duchess of Clevedon. The Duke of Clevedon has been practically betrothed to Lady Clara since he was a young man (he was practically raised by her father)… and Lady Clara is, apparently, one of the worst dressed young women in society. Marcelline is convinced that dressing Lady Clara properly will be such an instantaneous makeover that her business will be instantaneously popular.
So she goes to Paris, to try and convince Clevedon that she deserves this exclusive right and contract.
The problem is, she’s so attractive herself that Clevedon is more interested in seducing her than hiring her. And, they’re so attracted to each other that they can’t help but fight, squabble, and be super-omg-attracted to each other throughout all of the starting scenes. (And honestly, if she’s really this attractive and ambitious, you kind of wonder why she didn’t a) hatch a similar plan earlier, or b) realize that this might get in the way of her approaching the duke directly.)
Well, okay, there are actually quite a few problems here…
Despite the fact that Marcelline is an amazingly interesting protagonist, the chief emotion she seems to feel for Clevedon is… lust. And the bigger problem is that that’s all he seems to deserve! In the beginning of the novel, all that happens is that she (cleverly) tricks him, again and again. Though she later gets sick, and he takes care of her… and again, later, she runs into troubles and he’s there to save her. He’s only able to do that because of his wealth and position. He feels far too easily manipulated, and you end up thinking: meh. A heroine to die for, she’s so cool, and a hero who’s just kind of rich, and supposedly attractive, and nothing else!!!
And the dressmaking and dress-wearing details were a little eye-glazing (for me) as I have no real interest in that area (and when I picked up the book, I didn’t realize that it was Dressmakers #1, which would have been a tip-off).
Still, Chase is a good writer, and there were parts that just flew off the page. I don’t regret it, but I certainly won’t put this on my re-read list…
Comparisons to Other Authors/Books:
Chase is good at carrying out tropes well, which makes sense since this was a RITA winner. She’s not afraid to get into the nitty-gritty of her character’s cause or passion, which is very Lisa Kleypas and Sherry Thomas like (where the characters often have careers, purposes, things that are really driving their actions). Also, I LOVED what a strong female protagonist and family she created here (very Julia Quinn in terms of having that super-strong and supporting, will-always-be-there-for-you family). Still, I far preferred her Lord of the Scoundrels book (definitely a five-star book — and good enough that I won’t be giving up on her as a an author, despite this somewhat more mediocre effort).