There’s lots to love about this, but also some slightly wobbly aspects. On the one hand, the romance is exquisitely well-drawn, perfect in every detail. On the other, the surrounding plot is fairly clunky, and there are some technical issues that interfered with my reading pleasure quite considerably.
Here’s the premise: Miss Christine Devon is the middle daughter of three, now preparing for her debut season in London. Her elder sister, Julia, made a mess of her season, failing to marry the required rich and/or titled man her father demanded. Christine is determined to do better, and meet all her father’s expectations. She wants to make him proud of her. On a neighbouring estate, Thomas Gilbert is the son and heir of a respectable but recently impoverished family, returned from a trip to Italy with a string of mares he hopes to breed. Coincidentally, Christine owns several stallions which she, too, hopes to breed one day.
So the stage is set for a romance based around their common interest in horses. Well, not exactly. Intriguingly, Christine has an unusual problem – she is socially inept, never knowing what to say, and when she does speak, often offending people. She sets the vicar by the ears by arguing theological points with him, and is initially quite oblivious to the general outrage her behaviour creates. But she’s aware that there’s a problem, and, bent on fulfilling her father’s expectations, when she meets Thomas accidentally while out riding, she enlists his help to tutor her in how to converse and flirt with gentlemen.
This part of the story is delicious, and while Christine’s infelicitous attempts to improve her technique lack something of the wit that (say) Georgette Heyer would have given them, they are incredibly true to life (read: I saw my younger self in Christine). Her lack of empathy with those around her, and her habit of saying whatever comes into her head are both endearing and, at the same time, full of pathos.
But of course, while she is learning from Thomas, she is also falling in love, and he with her. The scenes where they oh-so-nearly kiss are breathtaking – well, I was holding my breath, anyway. Excellent writing.
In the background, there are Christine’s two sisters, the younger Rebecca, still trying to walk a fine line between rebellion and conforming to her father’s demanding precepts, and older sister Julia, who seems a bit stuffy at first, but eventually unbends towards Christine. Thomas’s parents are lovely, too, a couple who married for love and are still happy together, and want that for their son, too. As for Christine’s father, I’m not a big fan of the autocratic father as a plot driver, personally, and this is a particularly obnoxious specimen, driven totally by considerations of rank and wealth, and with no interest whatsoever in his daughters’ happiness. If he were not quite so evil, there would be virtually no obstacle to the love match at all, so to my mind he doesn’t quite ring true as a character, he’s more of a plot device, albeit a very common one.
So. To the technical issues, which is just me being my usual pedantic self. The author has done a lot of research into the Regency era, but she’s missing a few of the basics. The one point that rankled most with me was the number of gentlemen who had ‘business associates’ or were ‘away on business’. The distinguishing characteristic of a gentleman is that he does not engage in ‘business’ or trade of any sort. He has an independent income, preferably from the rent on land, but some might be held in funds. He might visit his distant estates, perhaps, but if he says he has business in town, it’s because he’s visiting his lawyer, his banker or his mistress. Younger sons might engage in the most respectable professions, such as the church, law, the army or politics, but the true gentleman and his eldest son, at least, do not undertake any employment. This is an important distinction to make, because Mr Devon wants his daughters to marry well in part to provide him with good quality business connections. Nope. Social connections, yes, but not business.
[ETA: Another review suggests that the heroine’s father is a ‘cit’, that is, someone who runs a business in the City of London. This is an interesting idea, which hadn’t occurred to me. It would totally account for all the time he spends away ‘on business’, as well as his obsession with his daughters marrying money, and preferably a title. It hadn’t occurred to me because the family have all the trappings of the gentry – the country estate and the fact that they’re totally accepted without a qualm by even the aristocracy, which would never, ever happen if the father were really in trade. The Regency was incredibly class-conscious. So it’s not clear to me exactly what the author intended, but as written the signals are rather mixed.]
The other big issue is the matter of titles. This is something that almost all American authors, and a lot of Brits, too, get tangled up with, and it is complicated, true, but the correct forms of address haven’t changed much in the last two hundred years. The Earl of Annesbury, for instance, is addressed as Lord Annesbury, or Annesbury by his friends, or my lord by inferiors. I don’t know where the title Lord Calvert came from, but it’s wrong. And as for the earl mentioned in passing as having two sons, who would both inherit titles, one from the mother – this just made me shudder. It’s not totally impossible, but it’s so wildly improbable as to cause astonishment when mentioned. I also was uncomfortable with Christine being called ‘Miss Christine’ almost constantly. It’s fine when she’s with her sisters, but it would be more normal to call her ‘Miss Devon’ when she’s on her own and there’s no possibility of confusion.
Another Regency blunder concerns the meals. The main meal of the day is dinner (not supper), and it might consist of a single course, all set out on the table before the guests sit down, sweet and savoury dishes together, or there might be two courses, with the table cleared and then reset with another huge collection of dishes. There might also be ‘removes’, with some dishes replaced by others. But no soup course, fish course, etc. That was a Victorian invention. As was afternoon tea. A supper was a light meal served at the end of an evening by those who dined early, or in the middle of a ball. On the other hand, the author has done her research on the waltz, and describes the early form of it very well. Hardly anyone gets this right, so kudos for that (and it’s a terrific scene!).
On the writing, there were a host of Americanisms, like fall for autumn, passed for died, dove instead of dived, and so on, although these don’t matter much. The homophones are worse (words that sound the same but mean something different, like bare for bear, poured over instead of pored over, and ring a peel instead of ring a peal). A good editor should have spotted those.
Well, this has turned into quite an essay, but I hate those reviews that say ‘good/bad historical accuracy/editing/whatever’. I like to know what that means. I hope you do too, or maybe no one will actually read this far, who knows. Deep breath, nearly done.
On the plot clunkiness, I’ve already mentioned that a large part of the plot depends wholly on the autocratic father, but there is another moment at the end which kind of ruined things for me. I won’t mention it because spoiler, but it was a shame, because up until then things had been going along swimmingly. The early annoyances of inaccuracies and the like had faded away, there were scenes of real emotional intensity between the two protagonists and things were well on their way to a possible five stars. But suddenly all the obstacles were airbrushed out of existence, and we tipped straight into the happy ever after at breakneck speed.
Now, I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake this list of problems as an overall criticism of the book. They were problems for me because I’m horribly pedantic that way, but most people won’t even notice them. In every other respects, this is a terrific book, with likable and realistic protagonists, a beautifully developed slow-build romance and a story happily free of side plots, stupidity and sex. The lovers get their long-awaited kiss in the last-but-one chapter and ride off into the (metaphorical) sunset in the most satisfactory way. It’s the first of the series, and possibly the author’s first published work, it’s a refreshingly original and well-written entry into the genre and I highly recommend it, even though for me personally the historical inaccuracies and that plot clunkiness keep it to four stars. I enjoyed it despite all of that, and I’ll certainly try more of the series. The next book is, I believe, about Julia and I really want to see her get her HEA. So, onward.