I’ve been trying out several “classic” romance authors this year in an effort to clean out my own shelves of books I bought years ago and never read (one trip to Bookmans in particular ended with heaps of old paperbacks with scantily clad models on the front). This is the lone Kleypas from my collection, and the first book of hers I’ve read. And I liked it! It was a perfectly fine book.
I ended up with this book of hers because it was the first in the Wallflowers series, and I’ve heard Devil in Winter is a favorite of many romance readers, and that’s #3. I wanted to read in order, hence, this book first.
The Wallflower conceit was actually one of my favorite parts of the book. Our heroine Annabelle Peyton is on her last London season, and her quest for a husband has become desperate. Her family is one step away from impoverished (her father died years before and she has a younger brother who is still in school), and if Annabelle doesn’t marry soon, they will either be forced to give up their lifestyle or Annabelle will have to become some peer’s mistress in exchange for money and safety. She doesn’t want this. The reason Annabelle is unmarried, despite being so beautiful (eyeroll) is that she has no dowry, and peers prefer to marry women with money to secure their estates. They would all much rather wait for her to be available as their mistress.
Towards the end of the season, Annabelle bands together with three other wallflowers who she’s been sitting next to all season without getting to know them. They decide to make a project of finding each other husbands, as they haven’t been able to do it alone and four together are better than four alone. Her compatriots are shy Evie (who has a stutter and a terrible family), and American sisters Lillian and Daisy Bowman, who are considered garish and who need a British peer patron in order to be taken seriously in Society, but who are fabulously wealthy. With the other ladies’ help, Annabelle is kitted out with new dresses and they form a plan to catch her a husband at the last party of the season. The complication in their plan is that wealthy industrialist commoner (he’s the son of a butcher) Simon Hunt has set his sights on Annabelle, and she is fascinated with him in turn.
I liked Simon fine as a human, but didn’t really feel much for him as a love interest. He wasn’t very emotionally vulnerable, and that’s where you get me. He was also really alpha and aggressive, and spends most of the book gently tormenting Annabelle with his sexuality and hinting that he wants her to be his mistress. The moments when I liked him best were when he was seeing Annabelle as a human being and recognizing things in her others didn’t see. I also was a bit perplexed by the narrative choice to have him supposedly be a character who refuses to “tie himself down” with a wife, when there is no reason ever given for this choice. I spent the whole book wondering if he was so taken with Annabelle why didn’t he just offer to marry her, but I suppose that would mean the book would have been half the length. I wish the author had explored this trope rather than just shoving it in there with no justification.
I think she also could have solved it by leaning into one of my other favorite part of the book, which was the developing class changes brought about by industrialization. This is set in 1840s England, not in the Regency period, and it’s clear by the end that the aristocracy is declining in power and relevance, and industrialists and men who work for a living are the ones gaining more power and influence. Annabelle and Simon are right in the middle of this because Simon made his fortune speculating on the developing railroad industry. Watching Annabelle’s perspective shift from “being a peer is best” to thinking them irrelevant and dull as her worldview opens was absolutely fascinating. It would have been better for the book I think had her objection to being with Simon been the class issue, that he wasn’t a peer, from the beginning. It would have been much more believable and more interesting.
I’m going to read the rest of the series because I want to see how it turns out for the rest of the wallflowers. I will keep trying more of this author’s books, too, because I seem to have started with one that isn’t anyone’s favorite.