An Inconvenient Beauty
One of the most famous lines in literature is the opening sentence of Gone with the Wind: Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm. I felt that way as I read through Kristi Ann Hunter’s An Inconvenient Beauty; this novel had some problems but I barely acknowledged them as I fell under the spell of its considerable charm. This fourth tale in the Hawthorne House series is sweetly endearing and works just fine as a standalone novel.
Isabella Breckenridge would typically have enjoyed a society debut but her appearance this Season comes with considerable strings attached. Her father’s recent accident has left her family somewhat improverished and has put the ownership of their farm in jeopardy. Her wealthy uncle is willing to help them under the condition that Isabella use her amazing beauty to lure men to her so that he may convince them to vote for the Apothecary Act. She is to grace the ballrooms and parties of the ton, leading any interested young men to believe they have a shot at courting her if they will support her uncle in his parliamentary shenanigans. To sweeten the deal for those who are not taken in by simply a pretty face, he has started a rumor that she is a considerable heiress. The plan is that once the bill is signed, Isabella will return to the countryside with no harm done but a slightly tarnished reputation. This pulled me up short. Maintaining an unblemished reputation is always such an important thing for young ladies in historical romance, so I couldn’t buy the idea that just because Isabella lived in the country, her involvement with her uncle’s scheme would have no effect on her. Added to that, surely her uncle – and by extension, her beloved cousin Fredericka St. Claire – would not escape censure for his actions, especially since they will be staying in town and her uncle will be openly canvassing votes and dangling Isabella’s supposed fortune. But I digress; back to the story.
In the meantime, Griffith Hawthorne, the Duke of Riverton, is applying an orderly and rational approach to bride-hunting and has determined that Fredericka St. Claire, a perpetual wallflower, will make him the perfect wife. His first foray into working himself into Fredericka’s life is a failure. The young lady faints while speaking to him, forcing him to spend time alone in a room with her and her beautiful cousin Isabella while the latter lady ministers to the afflicted former. It’s not an auspicious beginning, especially since Griffith finds himself enchanted by Isabella’s witty intelligence and kindness.
Griffith, however, is made of stern stuff. He perseveres in the face of such adversity, paying a call on Fredericka soon after her fainting fit. His plan for them to take a leisurely stroll together goes awry when she insists on taking her cousin along and then half-way through their walk claims exhaustion and determines that she will wait in a café with her maid while the other two press on to the original destination. Once more Griffith finds himself charmed during his time with Isabella. The two have a lively conversation, he’s entranced by her love of trees and assorted greenery, and Griffith begins to wonder if he really is taking the right approach to looking for a wife.
Any courtship between them looks doomed, though, because of the swarm of men surrounding Isabella. She seems determined not to be rid of them and he is equally determined not to take a wife who dallies with other men’s affection. The reader knows Isabella has begun to return Griffith’s interest and is stricken by guilt regarding her crowd of admirers but is forced to flirt with numerous other suitors while holding Griffith at bay for the sake of her desperate family.
In spite of the eye-roll-inducing plot, when the author concentrates on the romance, we see a delightful couple who are a natural fit for each other. Griffith is stuffy, Isabella makes him forget about that and just enjoy himself. Griffith is a planner, she is far more spontaneous and brings some sparkle and joy to his life as a result. The two clearly fall in love with each other; it’s not just a question of rubbing along well together but it involves that indefinable spark which moves a relationship from simply good into being ‘the one.’
The secondary characters are also charming. The Hawthornes are a close family and it is natural – and wonderful to see Miranda, Georgina, Trent and their spouses make appearances here. I also enjoyed the clever and level-headed Fredericka whose own romance was the cause of the faints and ‘exhaustion’ which helped advance the relationship between our two leads.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the book is Ms. Hunter’s lovely prose. She has a lovely way of telling a lighthearted tale which captures both the serious but joyful business of falling in love and the deep, inner struggles people of faith wrestle with as they deal with trying to rise above their own imperfections in an imperfect world. The characters never feel as though they are the mouth pieces for a subtle sermon but rather are relatable in their need to balance practicality and morality while being an integral part of an interesting story.
Few novels are perfect though, and the flaws in this story were sometimes detrimental to my enjoyment of the book. While the author emphasizes the fact that the Hawthorne family is a bit eccentric, the very casual behavior of this group of English aristocrats borders on being too far outside the norm. Much of what they do would have raised many an eyebrow in polite society. One such moment is a scene where Griffith is doing repair work on a tenant’s cottage. The whole episode, in my eyes, perpetuated the rather American myth that ‘book work’ such as running an estate isn’t real work. This simply wouldn’t have been the thought process of a gentleman of the time, in fact in many ways it is the antithesis of it. My other complaint was that Isabella’s uncle’s plan to use her beauty for his political gain was quite ridiculous. It assumed that this rather small pool of eligible men never gossiped among themselves and would have been too stupid to catch on to the scheme. Perhaps I give them too much and too little credit all at once but I think they would have talked and would have been smart enough to catch on to the fact they were being scammed. The plan also assumed they wouldn’t be infuriated when, after casting their votes in order to win Isabella, the lady vanished.
Those flaws aside, An Inconvenient Beauty is a sweet tale of finding love with whom we least expect it. Fans of the series will be pleased with this agreeable conclusion to this captivating quartet and new readers should be impressed enough with the book to seek out those that came before it.