Cadenza is the sixth book of Stella Riley’s popular Rockliffe series. Like the previous book Hazard, this story features a double romance, which Riley once again successfully pulls off without one couple overshadowing the other.
Julian Langham is the extremely reluctant Earl of Chalfont, saddled with an impoverished estate and his predecessor’s three illegitimate children. Anguished at having to give up his budding career as a concert harpsichordist, he is feverishly shouldering the duties that have landed on him. Other than a cook and one servant, he has no help at his large, crumbling country seat. He desperately needs a housekeeper to manage his ramshackle household, one who can also function as the de facto governess and corral the children who have hitherto run wild. So he advertises the position.
And Elizabeth Marsden, the eldest daughter of a proud vicar who’s been reduced to penury, feels fortunate to have seen the advertisement. Her father refuses to accept any help from his sister-in-law, Lady Brandon, even going so far as to decline to allow her to send Lizzie to London in order to experience the Season and to secure a husband. Lizzie realizes that with two younger sisters, she must be the one to give up on her dreams of marriage and take a position in service so she can send some money back to her parents.
In the meantime, her wealthy cousin, Arabella Brandon, is refusing to go to London for a Season, and her mother is perplexed as to why a girl would not jump at the chance to enjoy the sophisticated delights of town. Unbeknownst to anyone, three years earlier, Arabella had anticipated her vows with her betrothed, who then went away to the American Colonies and married someone else. Arabella considers herself unmarriageable.
When Arabella hears of the position Lizzie has accepted, she conceives of an audacious plan and proposes that she and Lizzie swap places. Arabella will go in Lizzie’s place to Julian’s home in Nottinghamshire, while Lizzie will go to the Duchess of Rockliffe’s home in London. This is a lark to Arabella and will serve to get her out from under everyone’s scrutiny. It will also give Lizzie some fun before she has to give it all up and go into service. To Arabella this is a short-term arrangement. She overrides Lizzie’s qualms and scruples and the girls switch roles.
While the Duke of Rockliffe is usually alive to every suit, in this he is in the dark. But for how long, and what will he do when he discovers the whole? The duke is an excellent character who shows up as a person of sagacity, reliability, and suavity in every book in the Rockliffe series. His reputation of being able to manage every situation life throws at him is legendary, and the development of his character and the role he plays in Cadenza is stellar. In a sense, he is just as important as the two couples in the story.
En route to London, Lizzie’s carriage breaks down, and she is forced to accept the aid of Ralph Harcourt, the Earl of Sherbourne. Despite the presence of his valet and her maid, she has no companion to give her countenance, and the four days spent in his chilly, aloof company are likely to tarnish her reputation should it be discovered. Ralph is viewed with suspicion and dislike by many of his peers, and Lizzie is sadly embroiled in a scandal, even before she makes her curtsy in London.
I understand that in service to the plot, Arabella needs to go to Julian’s household as a housekeeper-cum-governess; however, she never behaves like one. Not once, not even at the beginning of her ‘employment’, do we see her behaving as a servant should. In that role, she would have had the control of the entire household, especially since Julian is unmarried, but she would still be part of the downstairs, not the upstairs. Instead, she eats dinner with Julian, he asks her to call him by his Christian name, she sits on the piano bench next to him unasked, among other such incidences, and she talks to him as if her social status is on par with his – all in all, she behaves like a young titled lady in a developing relationship with a peer of the realm.
I liked Lizzie very much. She’s the type of person who sees the good in other people and encourages them to rise up to her expectation of them. She’s calm, clear-sighted, and empathetic. I would’ve liked Julian to have had her as his love interest – someone who would be a comfort, an enthusiastic fan, and a loving helpmeet. However, I liked her pairing with Ralph for precisely the same reasons. Both men are lonely and insecure about their positions in society. They cannot believe they can be accepted for who they are, and Lizzie would’ve given them that confidence;.
On the other hand, Arabella is immature, impulsive, and spoiled, and that is a combination I dislike. However, I have no requirements for liking a heroine before I can like a book. So long as those qualities serve the story being told, they are sufficient to my evaluating the character with favor. However, in this case, Arabella’s immaturity and impulsivity serve to manipulate and randomize people around her and are not necessarily driving the plot. She’s like a disturbance in a pond with negative ripple-effect for those around her, especially Julian. For example, her refusal to admit to her planning the charade meant that the revelation came out of the left field to him, a betrayal hitting him where he is most vulnerable. But then, he forgives her in less than a day.
And this is the crux of my problems with Arabella’s character. People continually forgive her, humor her, and swoop in to manage all her hasty starts and impetuous stratagems. In a sense, she gets away with her behavior and thus there is no growth arc for her other than she is now a little less spoiled. While that might be a sign of dawning maturity, it’s a case of too little too late.
The saving grace of this book is the writing: fully-realized characters, excellent period details (other than the aforementioned housekeeper) and word choices, and a smartly moving plot that smoothly intertwines the two threads of the story. Riley is clearly an aficionado of music and writes about it authoritatively.
Given how pitch-perfect I found The Parfit Knight, book one in the Rockliffe series, and how much I enjoyed the second (The Mésalliance), I had similar expectations of Cadenza, and it didn’t work for me. However, Lizzie’s story is interesting and for that alone the book is worth reading.