When I started reading romance, I stuck almost entirely to historicals and romantic suspense. When I saw this month’s TBR Challenge prompt, I knew I had no shortage of historical reading in my closet o’TBR. I decided to go with a new-to-me author and picked up Liana LeFey’s 2012 debut, Countess So Shameless. This Georgian historical, set in France and England during the reign of George II, has enough intelligence and unique characterization to keep me reading but also enough eyeroll-inducing plot twists to make it difficult for me to recommend.
The novel opens at Versailles where the teenaged Melisande Compton has come to court with her French mother and English father. We learn very quickly that this isn’t entirely a pleasure visit and while in France, Melisande learns a dangerous and devastating family secret. Overcome with emotion, she runs headlong into Lord Alessandro Orsini, a rakish diplomat for the Papal States. Though warned early and often by her mother of Alessandro’s unsuitability and danger to properly brought up young women, Melisande finds herself enjoying his company and is quite swept off her feet.
Alessandro feels likewise and when the two cross paths again some years later in England, we learn that his meeting with Melisande (“Melly”) was a deep love at first sight. And LeFey writes this part of her book very well. I’ll admit to being a jaded enough reader that love at first sight plots often feel hackneyed and leave me cold. However, I could believe in Alessandro’s love for Melly. As I read, it struck me that Alessandro didn’t just admire Melly’s body or want to touch her. He genuinely enjoys her company and just loves her. I found this refreshing and endearing after reading too many historicals where “love at first sight” basically means that the sight of the heroine sets the hero’s codpiece a-twitching.
When Melly and Alessandro meet again in London, we learn that Melly’s parents have died. By order of the Crown, Melly has been permitted to inherit her father’s title in her own right. She decides to take advantage of her independence by eschewing marriage. At first, this aspect of her character intrigued me. Instead of coming off as a curl tossing “feisty” heroine, her ardent pursuit of intellectual interests leads her to create a rather full life for herself. She looks more like a young woman using her independent wealth to forge a different path for herself rather than someone obsessed with thumbing her nose at society.
That is, until she meets up with Alessandro again and decides to start rather openly thumbing her nose at society just for the sake of doing it. She basically propositions Alessandro and tells him that she wants a no-strings-attached fling. And that’s where she started to lose me.
I could see where LeFey was trying to write an independent, spirited heroine confident in her own sexuality. At the best moments in this book, she does have some success. For instance, we see Melly contemplating what her decision means; she’s not entirely unaware of social mores. In fact, she and a dear childhood friend have a great conversation at one point about the hypocritical masks people wear in society and what can often lie beneath with appearances one must preserve. When I read that scene, I had to go right back and read it again because it was intelligent, self-aware and just plain good.
However, as Melly throws herself into her plan, I just couldn’t make myself like her very much. It’s blatantly obvious that Melly is more than just a fling to Alessandro (a delightful reversal of the usual roles). After a few scenes showing him wearing his heart on his sleeve while Melly disregards said heart and claims to want only his body, the interplay between the two felt a tad painful.
Their “arrangement” is also more than a bit eyeroll-inducing. Melly goes so far as to have a male friend procure a discreet home in his name, giving the appearance that he has taken a mistress, when in fact the home will be Melly and Alessandro’s love nest. That strained credibility more than a little. Oh, and the virgin Melly takes to sex right away with Alessandro, using her mother’s sexual history to explain her unusual prowess in bed because these things are apparently inherited rather than practiced.
I genuinely liked Alessandro for the most part, and this novel really does have an intelligent and observant side to it. However, Melly’s exhausting behavior and the random villain tossed into the story for good measure made this one a little difficult for me to finish. I’d probably give this author a try in future, but her debut was a touch too uneven for me to recommend.
Grade: C+ Sensuality level: Warm
– Lynn Spencer
The Historical prompt for the TBR Challenge is a bit of a Busman’s Holiday for yours truly, but even so, I still enjoy going through my books to find something I haven’t read yet. This time round, I settled on a traditional Regency from 1978, Joan Smith’s Imprudent Lady. Many authors have had books likened to those of Georgette Heyer, and while that is a comparison that’s always going to draw my eye, I’ve been disappointed on many an occasion. Not so here. Imprudent Lady is an utterly delightful rake-meets-bluestocking story full to the brim with sparkling dialogue, beautifully observed wit and deftly drawn characters that has at its centre a warm, charming romance between a rakish, Byronic poet and an authoress with a talent for writing sharply observed characters and situations.
Miss Prudence Mallow and her mother have been left in reduced circumstances and have gone to live with Mrs. Mallow’s brother, Mr Clarence Elmtree, an amateur artist with a hugely inflated idea of the extent of his skill. In order to earn a little money, Prudence does some work as a copyist for publisher, Mr. John Murray, and in the course of her work starts penning stories of her own. Murray is impressed with her writing style and her strong observational skill and humour, and undertakes to publish The Composition, even though it is not in the current vogue for exciting romantic adventures à la Walter Scott.
The book sells steadily, and Prudence is soon at work on a second novel, and then a third. Her work is well-regarded and she finds herself coming into contact with some of her favourite authors, such as Fanny Burney, but does not make much of an impression on them.
The literary world and English society is set abuzz is the return to England of Lord Dammler, whose Cantos from Abroad, thinly disguised tales of his three years travelling the world have become an instant success. Full of over-blown action, adventure and romance, the handsome, aristocratic Dammler is society’s golden-boy, although he quickly finds that being constantly in the spotlight and the subject of endless sycophancy is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Along with the rest of society, Prudence has been enthralled by Dammler’s tales of derring-do, and is bowled over by his dark good looks. Enthused by a brief meeting, she is moved to send Dammler an autographed copy of The Composition – and is hurt when she discovers he passed it on to his aunt without reading it. In a fit of pique, she dismisses Dammler’s writing as “nothing but a totally incredible novel in rhyme.”
Learning of this, Dammler takes up Prudence’s novel and is surprised to find it engaging and witty. When the two meet again, he is immediately intrigued by Prudence’s no-nonsense manner and the fact that she doesn’t simper and flirt like every other woman he meets. Because her clothes are drab and she sports the sort of lace cap usually worn by older ladies, he at first takes her to be older than her twenty-four years and fails to mind his tongue, talking quite freely to Prudence about matters that are considered too “warm” for the ears of a younger lady. But Prudence doesn’t really mind; in fact, Dammler’s discourse, while it might shock her at times, is eye-opening for her in many ways, and they strike up a friendship based on professional affinity – they’re both writers, they have the same publisher – and he begins to introduce her to people of influence and to advance her career.
The romance between this unlikely couple is very well done, with the bulk of the story focusing on Dammler’s gradual transition from rakehell to a man deeply in love.
He admired and respected Miss Mallow’s books and brains initially, then he began to like her dry wit, her understatement, her way of not pretending to be impressed with his past (and present) affairs, which he coloured bright, to shock her.
When she wore her new bonnets, he thought she was rather sweet looking, in an old-fashioned way. They talked and laughed together for hours. If anyone had told him they were well suited, he would have been shocked.
Dammler is all one could want in a romantic hero – handsome, clever, confident, but self-aware enough not to take himself too seriously. Yet for most of the book, he has no idea that what he is feeling for Prudence IS love, although the reader sees the progression from professional interest to friendship to love through some of the wittiest banter I’ve read in a long time. And while Prudence is aware of the nature of her feelings, she believes the fact that Dammler talks so openly to her means that he sees her as another male friend, or – just as bad – a sister.
“I didn’t go out at all last night. Stayed home and got the second act written in rough.”
This was the second time he had mentioned in a seemingly casual fashion the innocent nature of his nights, and Prudence decided to chide him about it. “I wasn’t hellraking last night, either, but I hadn’t meant to brag to you about it.”
“Oh, what a heartless wench she is! You complained loud enough when I was out carousing. Won’t you say a kind word on my improvement?”
“I did not complain! Don’t cast me in the role of guardian of your morals.”
“Well, I hoped to please you by improving. No one else ever was kind enough to worry about me, or care whether I ran to perdition.”
“What a plumper! Your mama cried for two hours when you got drunk.”
“But she’s been dead for ten years. I started drinking young. And my father has been dead for fifteen years. Just a poor orphan waif, really. Couldn’t you pat my head and bless me, or must I lie on the floor and hold my breath to excite any interest?”
“Indeed it is not necessary to choke yourself. Good boy,” she reached out and patted his head, and felt sorry for him in spite of his shameless bid for pity.
There are, of course, a couple of hiccups along the way in the form of some unsuitable suitors, one of whom is a particularly odious misogynist. The final section, which takes place in Bath, lacks some of the earlier sparkle, but by that time, I was so firmly rooting for Dammler and Prudence to resolve their differences that I didn’t really mind.
Imprudent Lady is the perfect pick-me-up read; quick, funny and clever, with a nicely done romance and some great secondary characters, not least of which is Prudence’s uncle Clarence, the truly awful artist. Somehow, Joan Smith keeps this running joke fresh, as Clarence expounds – frequently – upon various aspects of his art:
“I think Lawrence could pick up a trick of two from me, but he is quite spoilt with attention… I blushed for him, poor fellow, to see everyone praising such likenesses. He had a wart on Lady Cassel’s nose. You’d think anyone who calls himself an artist would have panted it out. But his sensitivity is entirely lacking. He can only paint a pretty picture if he has as pretty subject.”
If you’re in the mood for a light-hearted, tender romance full of sharply observed witty banter, add Imprudent Lady to your TBR. You won’t regret it.
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Kisses
– Caz Owens