Please ignore the overgrown beefsteak on the cover of this book. I cannot imagine a worse dude to put on the cover to represent this lovely story. Okay, well, that’s a lie. I can imagine worse. But still! It is not representative! That is a LARGE MAN WITH UNREALISTICALLY LARGE MUSCLES. The hero of this book is a normal man with a more lean physique and probably very pale, because he is English in the 1800s and where is the sun? And also he is a bookish barrister who regularly turns down social engagements to study and read, and is emphatically not a dude who goes to the gym three hours a day, finishes it off with a hop in the tanning booth, and only eats spinach and chicken breast for all meals.
Okay, now the book. Which I LOVED. Like, I am giving this five stars, and I do not remember the last time I gave a historical romance novel five stars. I have never even given a Courtney Milan five stars (her books are usually not sexy enough for me, and I like good sexytimes in these books). Five stars I usually save for books that really speak to me, or that I feel have some extra oomph that really has earned that fifth star. I consider most novels in this genre, even the ones that I love, to be more on the fluffy end of the literary spectrum, so they have to work a little harder to earn my true love. But this one barely had to flutter its skirts at me before I declared myself for it. Perhaps it’s because the book opens with our heroine, Kate, reading Pride and Prejudice, and deeply identifying with Elizabeth Bennet and her family woes, but more likely it’s that it was the right, well-written book at exactly the right time for me, that also happens to do things in romance novels that you rarely, if ever, see.
Kate Westbrook is the granddaughter of an earl, but because her father married an actress, his family cast him off. He lives respectably as a barrister, with his four daughters, one son, and wife in a loving household, but he is no longer accepted in “the right” social circles. For most of Kate’s family, that situation is perfectly fine. Why should they worry about being disliked by such people, who disregarded the warmth, intelligence and integrity of their mother without even meeting her, instead assuming her profession meant she was unfit for polite society? But Kate has always longed to be accepted back. The social stigma grates on her, and she sees how it limits the prospects of her siblings as well. She loves her parents, but resents them a little for having taken their own happiness at the expense of their childrens’. She is determined to rise again in the world, securing a great marriage so she can bring respectability back to her family’s name. Those plans don’t include falling in love with her father’s protégé, Nick Blackshear, who has recently lived through his own family scandal.
Nick is the brother of Will, from A Gentleman Undone. Will in that book ends up marrying Lydia Slaughter, a former courtesan and gentleman’s mistress. Usually in these books that’s where the story ends, Happily Ever After, let’s pretend this really could have happened NBD. Rarely is there true fallout from unsuitable marriages because romance novels are by design usually escapist in nature, and if there is fallout, we certainly don’t get to see it firsthand. Except that’s all this book is! This book takes place about a year later, and there has been definite consequences for Will’s “imprudent” marriage. All but his sister Martha (from A Lady Awakened) have cut him off, including Nick, whose business has notably suffered due to the scandal. Their older siblings have also dropped in standing, are regularly snubbed by their former friends, and Nick’s nieces and nephews now have virtually no chance at good marriages. Nick is trying desperately to gain respectability again, recover his business, and plan for an eventual career in politics. He also has no room for a marriage to someone who has connections to a scandal.
Actually, this is going to sound preposterous, but it reminded me of reading Jane Austen. The language is elevated more than I’m used to in most romance novels, and the characters behaved in historically accurate ways. It also felt very clever and aware of its own social criticism in a similar way that Jane Austen’s books do. It’s also slower and less immediately rewarding, but the payoff is so good. And the characters are so fully formed and flawed, with real weighty decisions to make and growth to accomplish.
I just loved it, and now I am sad, because I have finished the only three books this author has published.