Desert Isle Keeper
A Gentleman Never Tells
In this deftly crafted and expertly plotted novella, Eloisa James demonstrates her ability to know her characters and build them quickly. This particular tale involves Oliver, a gentleman who lives with regret over a youthful indiscretion, and Lizzie, who lives with shame regarding her first marriage. When the two are forced together at a country house party, witty repartee is the prelude to much more.
I have a fairly high bar for novellas, I’ll be honest. As a rule I am averse to the insta-love trope but am aware that page-count constraints in a novella mean it’s frequently deployed. I still don’t want to read about love at first sight followed by marriage within about a hundred pages without some serious effort made to convince me that the characters work. In historical novels, especially those in Regency, the situation is somewhat helped by the social understandings of marriage, but I still want to feel a connection between the characters.
I generally trust Eloisa James as an author, so while my novella skepticism was high, my author skepticism was low. I was anxious to see what she could do within the page limit and was anxious to check back in with the Essex sisters, who serve as delightful secondary characters throughout this book. And readers, let me tell you, I was delighted by this novella. Simply delighted.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Oliver has become the guardian of his rather spunky niece who is on the verge of adolescence and simply desperate to both see her friends and enter society. She manipulates events to get herself and Oliver invited to this particular house party. While there, he is asked by the hostess to keep an eye out for Lizzie and help her socially navigate the party. As helping women is part of his repentance for not behaving like a gentleman in his youth, Oliver takes the task seriously. It doesn’t, admittedly, hurt that he is taken with Lizzie upon first sight.
Why does Lizzie need help, you may ask? Well, she doesn’t really. But she does. Her first husband was an ass of the highest order and when he died, Lizzie’s reaction was to live life through reading and not through living. His behavior convinced her that not only was no man ever going to find her attractive, but at an even more base level that no man was worth her time. Gothic novels are more her thing now, and she’s perfectly content to live her days in one book or another. Her family and friends beg to differ, hence one of them enlisting Oliver.
I laughed out loud at the antics of Oliver’s niece, who serves as a plot driver, but not a burden. I loved how quickly Oliver and Lizzie feel comfortable disclosing emotions and secrets to each other, but in a way that never feels forced and never feels contrived. There’s a whole bit about a plum that charmed me thoroughly. Each of their backstories were explored ably, but not dwelt upon. Mistakes were made, both by them and to them, and consequences have been felt. By the time Lizzie and Oliver meet, they are each organically ready to move on from their pasts and so that work is accomplished off stage, as it were.
Because James demonstrates the maturity and capability of the principals, I was fully on board for their quick connection and cheered them along each step of the way. There’s just one caveat – the Kindle edition I read ends at 83% with the remainder being taken up by preview chapters of other books in this series. This is fairly standard practice and doesn’t bother me, but I realise that some readers might find it frustrating. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this story to anyone looking for a quick, witty, delightful read that will fully immerse you in a country house party and in the hearts of the hero and heroine.