A Thing of Beauty
I must admit that I began reading A Thing of Beauty with a bit of a same-old, same-old feeling. Bluestocking and amateur chemist Belinda Croft is suffering through her cousin Sissy’s society debut when a mysterious man mistakes her for the lover he’s jilting and gives her a goodbye kiss that sets her running. At the time, I thought, “Oh no, not another Duke of Slut!” Very happily, A Thing of Beauty improves to become a highly satisfying romance with a few unexpected turns. Fans of Ugly-Duckling stories won’t want to miss it.
Belinda, the daughter of a reclusive widower with social anxiety, has spent her youth concocting home remedies and avoiding society. But her Aunt Phoebe begs her to help with her beloved, beautiful (but not too bright) cousin Sissy’s debut, so Belinda dutifully comes along for moral support. When Sissy panics over a small pimple, Belinda thinks on her feet and rubs her new “beauty cream” on Sissy’s face to calm her down – mind over matter. You see, Belinda’s beauty cream is actually shoe polish. But the ton flips over Sissy and her flawless skin, and soon everyone is clamoring for a jar. Aunt Phoebe realizes this is the family’s ticket into society, and Belinda finds herself inundated with attention -and a surprising suitor.
Rakish Marcus Barrow, regarded as a man of good taste, is desperate to regain his family’s earldom, which George III took away in a fit of madness after Marcus’s father rejected the bride the king had selected for him – a scullery maid. The Prince Regent makes a deal with Marcus: if he can complete a certain task within a month, he can have the earldom. This task, of course, is a Big Secret. Marcus begins paying visits to the oddly-familiar Belinda, who knows he can’t be interested in her and tries to figure out what he’s up to. But Belinda and Marcus find themselves taken with each other’s intelligence, and soon the stakes are raised.
Belinda isn’t quite your standard historical bluestocking. She’s smart, yes, but plain and painfully shy, with few social graces. I found it very rewarding to see a less-than-conventionally-beautiful heroine blooming, and I was even more pleased with Marcus’s attraction to her mind. Marcus is a little more conventional, and initially I was prepared to dislike him, with his smooth-talking opening speech. But the author convinced me that Marcus was genuinely tired of his shallow lifestyle and looking for something better. Marcus and Belinda actually talk to each other, and I found I could believe them as friends as well as lovers. Their consummation scene is very tender, and I actually sympathized with Marcus over his Big Secret.
There were some supporting charms to this book as well. I was initially unhappy to occasionally be taken into the mind of Sissy, the consummate Regency ninnyhammer , but her character development surprised and delighted me. Claybourne took a character from Romance Novel Central Casting and made me care about her. Claybourne also did a fine job of evoking the ton, with its whirl of balls and house parties, and the climactic scene was quite touching because something was actually at stake. Some aspects of the epilogue seemed too perfect, but it was worth it to see a side of the Prince Regent that is rarely mentioned.
Despite my early misgivings, A Thing of Beauty is a cut above the usual regency-set historical romance. If you’re looking for a different type of heroine, or just a good story, give it a try.