Lisa Kleypas strikes me as a somewhat traditional author of historical romance. Which isn’t to say that she’s boring or stuffy, because she can write great smolder and steamy love scenes. I’m not entirely sure that I can put my finger on what makes me think this way, but I have an impression of her as an author whose idea of rebellion against romance conventions is a wink rather than a thorough upending.
None of that is to pass any kind of value judgement on her work, which I enjoy on the whole. I adore and admire Kleypas’ commitment to character tie-ins; for instance, seeing our main characters of this Hathaways series attend balls and parties thrown by the Westcliffs or Hunts of the Wallflowers series fame is a hoot. Additionally, there’s something to be said for heroines who are eccentric — to be sure — but who don’t flout social conventions entirely. As delightful as a progressive scientist heroine (for instance) is to my modern sensibilities, I do also want happy endings for the — I suspect — more frequently occuring women who were trained to aspire to society but, left to their own devices, fall more comfortably on its fringes. Lisa Kleypas specializes in those women.
The Hathaways series is about a family of four sisters and one brother who have survived both of their warm, loving, academic-type parents. They grew up as a very close-knit family and are fiercely protective of each other. Leo, the Hathaway brother, randomly inherited a lordship from a distant branch of the family, but the Ramsay title appears cursed with bad luck — the preceding Lord Ramsays have died unexpectedly, leaving the unsuspecting and inauspicious Hathaways in receipt of the title and its accompanying decrepit estate. As a family, they present as very them-against-the-world, which especially now is true: despite Leo’s recent ascent to the peerage, the Hathways don’t have the traditional breeding expected of London society, and the women in particular are suddenly in a position of unfamiliarity and discomfort with their new expectations.
Mine Till Midnight (4 stars) explains all of this background and more: other relevant information includes that a nasty bout of scarlet fever that had swept through their town claimed the life of Leo’s fiancee and nearly killed sister Win, who has been left permanently fragile. The heroine of this book, though, is the eldest Amelia Hathaway who, to borrow a description from one of the later books, is a shrewd and practical mother hen protecting her flock of Hathaways from whatever bumbling animal is foolish enough to get too close. She’s given up on the idea of marriage, because she (rather correctly) realizes that in the family’s current situation — with would-be head of household and keeper of finances Leo acting out after his fiancee’s death — she is the only one looking out for herself and her younger sisters. Our hero of this story is Cam Rohan, with whom we were first introduced in the Wallflowers series. See, the Ramsay property is conveniently located adjacent to the Westcliffs’ estate, and with the Ramsay house in disrepair, the Hathaways spend a considerable amount of time over at Stony Cross Manor. As a friend of the Westcliffs and having become taken with Amelia after he first encounters her, Rohan too takes the opportunity to spend some quality time at Stony Cross Manor and get to know her better. She rebuffs him at first — rebuffs him quite a lot, actually, as she’s determined not to marry — but Rohan’s intensity and sexual energy fairly leap off the page, so it’s quite understandable that as the actual object of his affections, Amelia eventually succumbs to temptation. Now, I really enjoyed their story and the development of their relationship –not to mention Amelia and Cam themselves, individually — but there is a lot of squicky racial weirdness in this book that continues well into the next. See, Cam and satellite family member Merripen, who is the hero of the next book, are Romany, and there are a lot of uncomfortable descriptions of Cam’s “exotic” eyes and his “gleaming golden skin” and generalities about Romany culture in general. On the one hand, I appreciate Kleypas’ intentions here, because, for all I harped on earlier about her being traditional, she went the (sadly) unconventional route of choosing heroes of color and exploring some of the prejudice they face. I just think all of that would have gone down easier without some stereotypical fetishizing language and basing huge plot contrivances on “my culture vs. your culture.” Speaking of which…
Seduce Me at Sunrise (1 star) was, for me, a disaster. I couldn’t even finish it. First: additional “my nasty Gypsy clan leader turned me into a savage killer” and “Merripen’s lust is ‘uncivilized'” racial issues, plus bonus “I don’t deserve you because you’re perfect and I’m a Gypsy.” Poor Winnifred. On top of being arguably the most boring of the Hathaway sisters, she had to be in love with my least favorite male lead (historical category) that I’ve read so far. There is nothing appealing to me about the tortured hero glowering at the heroine from across the room at all times and literally threatening any other man who approaches her; meanwhile, he’s constantly dramatically sticking his tongue down her throat and then pushing her away — “No! I can’t! I won’t!” Merripen, you are THE WORST. At no time (as long as I was able to keep reading) does he ever just listen to Win or respect her choices and feelings; he locks her under his “protection” — from himself and all others — into this infernal “If I can’t have you, no one can, but actually I won’t have you either, so get used to being alone” pattern that is loathsome. I can’t even really, when I think about it, figure out what it is about the two of them that even makes them compatible as a couple. Win’s affection seems to be a combination of attraction and a latent mothering instinct compelling her to heal the soul of a broken boy, while his love is based also out of attraction but also gratitude toward Win’s gentle kindness when the Hathaway family first took him in. If there is anything else particular about Win that he appreciates or loves, I can’t figure out what it is, because he won’t be around her or listen to her long enough to get any kind of bearing on who she is or what she enjoys. His behavior just pushed all of my hate buttons and I didn’t even want to see him be redeemed.
Tempt Me At Twilight (3.5 stars) was much better; however, if I’m being honest, the hero, Harry Rutledge, was still more domineering than I tend to prefer. A hotel owner who is used to getting what he wants and controlling every possible situation, Harry contrives a series of nasty tricks that basically force heroine Poppy Hathaway to marry him. He also has a few bouts of “You will obey me or suffer the consequences” shouty threats which I personally could not abide. Still, in a difficult-to-avoid comparison between him and Merripen, Harry comes out ahead in every measure. Does he appreciate Poppy’s wit and intelligence? Yes; in fact, that’s what first draws him to her. Does he respect her sexual decisions? Yep — he recognizes the difference between Poppy wanting him and simply doing her wifely duty, knowing that the latter is catty-corner to coercion. Finally, and most importantly, for all of his misguided earlier actions in getting Poppy to the altar, Harry didn’t marry her to keep her under his thumb. He just doesn’t know how to relate to anyone as a companion, a partner, before her. But he demonstrates that his controlling nature isn’t a rigid, unchangeable aspect of himself that she’ll have to accept and obey; Poppy has already started to soften him by the time I got to around the page count where I had abandoned Seduce Me at Sunrise. For her part, Poppy was the second great Hathaway heroine. She’s not especially uncouth or ill-behaved; on the contrary, she’s considerate, polite, and she makes every attempt to be “proper.” However, she’s considered slightly too “awkward” for society, because she just knows too much. About everything. Without long-term instruction on which topics are proper discussion for young ladies, Poppy tends to offer opinions about anything on which she’s reasonably informed. Rutledge makes an observation about her as his wife at a dinner party that’s pretty astute and, I suspect, a nice insertion of Lisa Kleypas’ own feelings on the matter: “…the same qualities that were considered faults in an unmarried girl were admired in a married woman. Poppy’s acute observations and her enjoyment of lively debate made her far more interesting than a demure society miss with a modest downcast gaze.” A wife is a reflection of her husband, after all, so an interesting one means a job well done by a husband. Conversely, unmarried women need to still be malleable, so it’s best for them to not come into the deal with too many ideas of their own already. Thought-provoking!
Married by Morning (4 stars) was the enjoyable story of a redeemed Leo Hathaway and Catherine Marks, governess to Poppy and Beatrix Hathaway. Their romance is classic I-hate-you-I-love-you, which is THE BEST! Catherine was a loveable heroine with a tragic backstory. She’s strong-willed and stubborn with defensive walls a mile thick, but one thing I loved about Kleypas’ choice of characterization was that she didn’t go for the typical “under all the bluster, she’s a broken woman” trope. Instead, Catherine’s values and strong sense of self worth radiate from her core and in fact form her defensive exterior. As for Leo, well, I admit to falling a little in love with him myself. Smart, sardonic, and a lot naughty, Leo also has learned a lot about what it means to be a woman in the Regency/Victorian era from watching the biases and double standards that govern his sisters’ behavior, so he’s learned how to protect the values and interests of the women he cares about without patronizing them. I swooned over him, more than once.
Love in the Afternoon (4 stars) finally got around to peculiar Beatrix Hathaway, who is basically the wild animal whisperer. She’s amassed a collection of unusual pets, and between that and basically having no filter at parties, she’s basically been typecast as the girl who is enjoyable company but not marriage material. One day, she is spending time with a friend of hers who has just received a letter from her suitor, Captain Christopher Phelan, who is away at war. Her friend is flighty and non-committal and has no plans to return a letter, but Beatrix is somewhat captivated by the letter and, at the very least, feels that a lonely man at war deserves a companionable response. Her friend advises Beatrix to pen the letter in her (the friend’s name) if she feels so compelled to write, and one thing leads to another and, before she knows it, Beatrix is in the midst of a very intimate correspondence with Captain Phelan and has even developed feelings for him. The romance between these two was very sweet and cathartic for them both, even if hampered by the initial deception and by Phelan’s PTSD after returning from war. Still, the story could have been way more melodramatic and overwrought than it was under these circumstances, so I appreciated Kleypas’ restraint. The humor in Phelan’s interactions with the Hathaways was pretty funny as well, even if the “all of us Hathaways are crazy, so believe me, I can put up with crazy!” jokes tended to wear thin by the end.
Overall, this was a strong series that I mostly liked, with the notable exception of Seduce Me at Sunrise. I’m definitely a stick in the mud about this, because this seems to be a thing that a lot of people absolutely love, but I tend to roll my eyes at every epilogue where through some cutesy device, the woman ends up revealing that she’s pregnant. These books (well, the ones that I finished) all had that, and while it’s not enough to sour me on the whole book, be advised that if you’re similarly averse to that brand of preciousness, you’re better off skipping those entirely. I think on the whole I preferred Kleypas’ Wallflowers series, but the family dynamic of the Hathaways here was really strong and went a long way toward tying the books together by giving each character a substantial support system. Each of the Hathaway heroines were blessed with inner strength and self confidence without false bravado, and their men (most of them, anyway) were worthy of their charms.