An Invitation to Sin
For the first half of An Invitation to Sin, I thought Ms. Enoch had escaped the Avon curse. In the mid-nineties Avon hit it big with several of their historical authors. These authors were publishing Regency-set historicals and since the books sold so well, the publisher decided all their (or as many as they could shoehorn into the schedule) authors would be forever after cursed by writing Regency-set historicals. It didn’t matter if that’s what they normally wrote. It didn’t matter how good their books set in other periods and places might have been. Regency historicals were it, forever and ever, amen. Okay, that’s my interpretation of what happened to Avon. And to my mind, many an author has fallen victim to the curse, many a reader too. After loving Suzanne Enoch’s wonderful first contemporary – Flirting with Danger – earlier this year, I was eager to try one of her Regency-set historicals (it’s in that ubiquitous sub-genre, after all, that her first dozen or so books were published). What I got was a mixed bag; a good author in a done-to-death genre.
A healthy portion of the good in Invitation comes from the hero and heroine. Though young and a little hot-headed, they are immensely likable people who fit together very nicely as a couple. Lord Zachary Griffin is the third son, or as he thinks of himself, the heir’s spare’s spare. He’s 24 and considered by his family, especially his older brother Sebastian (the Duke of Melbourne), to be incapable of settling on anything. When Zachary decides to join the army as an officer and enter the fighting action as soon as possible, Sebastian sidetracks him with family duty. Thus Zachary agrees to accompany his aunt to Bath. Along the way they stop in at the home of his aunt’s childhood friend. Suddenly the army is looking even more appealing. The Witfeld home has seven girls of marriageable age within its confines and six of them see Zachary as highly desirable husband material.
The seventh daughter is the lovely Caroline Witfeld. Caroline has no desire to marry (I know, I know, sounds a little familiar). She is a talented painter who hopes to become the pupil of a working artist. If Caroline doesn’t find a position as a student soon, she will have to take a job as a governess. Her parents can’t afford to keep their eldest daughter indefinitely and since she shows no interest in marriage, art or teaching are the only options left. A tutor in Vienna has expressed an interest in taking Caroline on as a student but only after he sees one more painting. Caroline needs to paint the portrait of an aristocrat and get his or her written approval of the job done. The arrival of Lord Zachary Griffin is a godsend. If Caroline can pry him out of the clutches of her marriage-minded sisters and keep herself from falling for him herself, her career will be made.
Caroline and Zachary are familiar character types. There’s no getting around that. But what Ms. Enoch does with them is – initially at least – fresh and interesting. Caroline’s ambition is very real and when Zachary comes up against her he’s forced to reexamine his own haphazard life choices. What he sees in Caroline is a woman who has set herself a goal and will do anything within her power to achieve that goal. Which sets up an interesting dynamic between them. How do they reconcile a relationship with her ambitions? How does Caroline fall for a man who’s life is as aimless as hers is driven? It’s an intriguing character driven story. That in and of itself was refreshing.
Equally appealing was the overwhelming presence of Caroline’s family. Her sisters would put Lydia Bennett to shame in their attempts to catch a husband. Seeing Zachary caught up in their machinations and then his turnabout attempts to redirect their energies provided a lot of the humor (as promised in the back blurb). Though I suspect the youngest is sequel-bait, her wry observations and practical outlook made for some of the best dialog in the book.
But somewhere around half-way through, the story lost its freshness and the book began straying more and more into Avon curse territory. The first big hint was Caroline musing “Since she never meant to marry…he was the best, most discreet chance she would have to experience being with a man.” How many times have we all read that? Suddenly it was all about how much they wanted to get with each other and how she would never, never marry but oh to have sex just once. I was left wondering what the heck happened and wishing the author had chosen instead to explore further the complicated relationship she’d developed in the first half of the book. Instead Caroline wrings her hands as she wonders how she’ll ever be able to live without Zachary. And he, in between the times he’s getting under her skirts, wishes she would stay.
Caroline and Zachary’s sudden hot to trot about face didn’t completely lessen my interest in them. Their likeability was a little tarnished, but I was still in there rooting for them. And in all fairness to Avon and other publishers, I’ll admit I’m a large part of the problem when it comes to the historicals being published today. I keep buying in the hopes I’ll find another Julia Quinn in the making, which is exactly why they keep publishing them.