There’s a lot to like about this, and also a lot of big irritations. There were moments when I couldn’t see how I would give it more than three stars, and there were brief moments of five star brilliance, so I’ve settled on four stars as a compromise. But it’s lumpy, very lumpy.
The premise is that dissolute Lord Ragsdale has his troublesome American cousins foisted on him, and if this were a Georgette Heyer book, the cousins would be up to all sorts of shenanigans, and world-weary and permanently drunk Lord Ragsdale would be cured of his ennui by sorting out their messes. But this is a very different story. The cousins are shunted offstage and the focal character is their indentured servant, Emma. She it is who forces the marquess to sign a contract: she will reform him from head to toe, and when he is respectably married, he will release he from her indenture. So far, so ludicrously implausible, but whatever.
For those who like their historical romance to have a little actual history (yes, radical, I know), this is your book. Emma is a victim of the Irish troubles of the turn of the century (eighteenth to nineteenth century, that is) who comes from a wealthy family which was captured, tortured, killed and otherwise split apart by the English, whom she hates with a passion. Lord Ragsdale lost an eye and his father in the same battle against Irish rebels, and he hates them with a passion. So of course these two are going to learn tolerance and understanding, and fall in love with each other. Of course.
So far so interesting, and I have no quarrel with the historical aspects. I liked the depth of characterisation which brought these two to life, and I loved their banter, which often made me laugh out loud. The other characters were mere ciphers, plot devices to throw our hero and heroine together, but that’s fine.
So what was so annoying? Firstly, the writing style. There’s some very irritating naming, which uses Lord Ragsdale, John Staples and Cousin John interchangeably, often in the same paragraph. There’s the fact that we’re shown the thoughts of both main characters, which (arguably) gives them greater depth but also is a lazy way of telling us what they’re feeling. Some reviewers really liked this aspect, but I didn’t. I found it jarring, and I would have preferred to be shown their feelings sometimes, for variety.
Another complaint is that Lord Ragsdale must be the easiest person ever to reform. Emma has the booze locked away and hey presto, he’s sober. He never slips, and even when he goes out for the evening and could drink as much as he wants, he comes home sober. All of which is pretty unbelievable. Then there’s the visit to his long-neglected estates in Norfolk, where we find a bunch of rosy-cheeked and friendly peasants, his lordship follows Emma’s instructions to the letter and hey presto, everyone is happy and nothing goes wrong. In fact, this is the recurring theme of the book, that nothing goes wrong, as Lord Ragsdale continues on his merrily reformed way.
And then there’s the romance itself. Oh dear oh dear. For two supposedly intelligent people, they are incredibly dense not to realise that they’re falling in love. When the peasants in Norfolk assume they’re married, that should have made them stop and think, but when they’re kissing and cuddling, with her sitting on his knee, and he then sets off to propose to some silly chit of a girl he doesn’t even like — words fail me.
And the ending… well, I suppose one could say it was a suitably sweeping romantic conclusion to the story, but I kept thinking — what about his mother and his abandoned fiancee and his rosy-cheeked peasants and all his obligations? Shouldn’t he feel some compunction about dropping everything and effectively running away? But somehow, every time the irritation grew to monstrous proportions, there would be an outbreak of Emma’s tart remarks and his lordship’s dry wit and all would be well. And sometimes, cheesy though parts of it were, it brought me to tears. So there’s that. Four stars.