A Bright Idea
Now that Scotland’s been done to death, it looks as if it’s time to read romances set in Ireland. A Bright Idea takes place in Victorian Dublin, and while I commend Cindy Harris for not overdoing the setting to the point of caricature, or going to the other extreme by pretending that the setting doesn’t matter, I can’t heartily recommend the book. A heroine I couldn’t admire, and a hero whose past remained too obscure for too long, in addition to some unintended hilarity, made this a more difficult read than it needed to be.
Impoverished widow Lady Dolly Baltmore is one of four women who receive a much-needed and generous gift from a mystery benefactor: if she’s willing to improve the condition of one of the townhouses in the run-down Fontjoy Square for a year, she gets an allowance, and she can keep the house. Since her late but not really lamented husband Lord Boyle Baltmore left her destitute, Dolly jumps at the opportunity.
Not having to worry about day-to-day existence will free her up to pursue the murky circumstances behind Boyle’s death. He died in the boxing ring, in the midst of a take-all-comers exhibition put on by Dick Creevy, Ireland’s premiere fighter and boxing instructor. Dolly blames Creevy for her husband’s demise, since Boyle was so out of shape that Creevy should have known his lucky blow would kill him. But how to approach Creevy without his knowing who she is? Dolly hits upon the “bright idea” of masquerading as a boy and taking boxing lessons from Creevy. She’ll foster a friendship with him and hope he’ll open up to her about what really happened. So she cuts her hair, binds her chest, and slips on a pair of trousers, and it’s off to the gym with her.
Dick Creevy is a lonely, and in some ways very confused, man. He’s got the requisite painful past with an unfaithful woman, which has soured him on long-term relationships. His unprecedented attraction to the “boy” he knows as Dahl “Doll Face” Mohr only makes him more confused. He’s got to prepare for an upcoming bout with Eric “the Viking” Duffy, and he doesn’t need this distraction. Desperate, Dick commissions a madam to find him a boyish-looking prostitute, one with short blonde hair, lean hips, and small breasts. By this time Dolly knows she wants him, convinces the madam to hire her, and shows up on Dick’s doorstep; a night of unprecedented passion ensues, followed by heartache and self-examination for both parties. Then Dick uncovers Dolly’s deception. Will she ever come clean with Dick? Will he be able to forget the pain in his past, learn to love again, and be able to focus on his training so he can beat Eric?
I understood Dolly’s duplicity, yet I found her very hard to like. Steeped in the tradition of keeping up appearances, she lies at the drop of a hat to everyone: her neighbors, the people at the boxing school, and especially the man she’s falling in love with. Yet she comes to the realization that she must learn to be honest if she wants to get on with her life. Dick was also hard to get to know, perhaps because the author held back important details of his backstory until the last few chapters, so there were holes in his personality for much of the book. If Harris had been just a bit more forthcoming a little bit sooner, I might have felt a more immediate connection with him. And I must say it was refreshing, if somewhat humorous, to read about a middle-aged hero with thinning hair.
Since this is the first of a series of four books, Harris uses some space to set things up for subsequent stories, and while I think she writes a with verve and energy that kept me reading, I found this aspect distracting. Dolly befriends one of her neighbors, the annoying and illogical Lady Claire Kilgarren, who is attracted to the mysterious Devon Avondale, their only male neighbor. Dolly and Claire bicker more than anything and, given her introduction in this book, I doubt I’ll be searching Claire’s story out. The other two women are more silly than anything else. The only reason I’d care to read about them is to discover their connection with their unknown benefactor. There’s also the matter of Boyle’s death, whose resolution I found incredible, with a cardboard villain and an unbelievable deus ex machina denouement.
Two of my biggest bugaboos appear in this book. One of them is the improper use of titles. Since she’s never been married, duke’s daughter Claire Kilgarren cannot be “Lady Kilgarren.” It’s got to be “Lady Claire.” And, since she was not titled before her marriage, Dolly can’t ever properly be addressed as “Lady Dolly” – she is “Lady Baltmore,” and that only until she remarries. Once again, I urge authors and writers to take a look at the informative Historical Cheat Sheet article on titles that Jo Beverley wrote several years ago.
The other faux pas involves naming characters. Please, authors, take some care when you decide what to call your hero! In this case, giving him the moniker “Dick” gave rise to (pardon the pun) much unintentional laughing on my part, especially when, in the midst of a moment of passion, Dolly whispers, “I want you inside me, Dick.” Well, I wondered, is she talking to the man, or the appendage? “…[N]othing mattered except having Dick inside her…she needed Dick inside her…she would do nothing but sit and knit and think of Dick…” Later, she reflects that she doesn’t know anyone, especially the hero: “She didn’t know Dick.” Oh, well, it could have been worse…at least he wasn’t named Willie or Peter. While I wouldn’t recommend that you go out of your way to look for A Bright Idea, I’ll say that it’s an okay read. I mean, it doesn’t totally suck…well…you know.