Devil in Spring
There’s always a risk when reading a book by one of your favorite authors, particularly when that book involves the child of a favorite couple from a beloved novel. The tie in to the earlier fantastic story raises the stakes, creating high expectations for the new tale. The hero of Devil in Spring is Gabriel Challon, Lord St. Vincent, son of Evie and Sebastian, the central characters of Ms. Kleypas’ incredibly popular Devil in Winter. While it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, and won’t go down as one of my favorite Kleypas books, it was certainly worth reading. And although it can be read as a standalone, familiarity with the other characters of the Ravenels and Wallflower series makes it much more enjoyable.
The book begins with the compromising of Pandora Ravenel by Gabriel. Anyone who knows Pandora from the previous two books in the series won’t be surprised that she felt cooped up at a ball and decided to venture outside on an errand for a friend. Heedless of any potential for scandal, Pandora wanders into a greenhouse and manages to get herself stuck in a settee, at which point Gabriel wanders onto the scene. In this innocent moment, where his only intention was to help a damsel in distress, the party’s host (who still bears a slight grudge against Gabriel’s father) shows up and declares the pair compromised.
Although neither Gabriel nor Pandora is enamored by the idea of marrying a stranger, it’s Pandora who is most vocal in her refusal to marry anyone at all. Gabriel, while unhappy that the parson’s mousetrap has been abruptly sprung, finds himself intrigued by Pandora’s disregard for the institution of marriage. They both return to their families for advice on how to proceed, and ultimately Gabriel’s parents suggest that the Ravenels come to visit their estate in Sussex, where Gabriel and Pandora can have a week to get to know each other. At the end of that time, they can decide the best way to move forward, either with a marriage or some other plan.
Amid long walks by the ocean and cheerful family gatherings, Gabriel and Pandora fall in love. While Gabriel is quick to change his attitude toward their marriage, excited by the prospect of spending the rest of his life with this interesting girl, Pandora remains unswayed. Although she can acknowledge she’s falling for Gabriel, her main opposition to their marriage has to do with the civil rights of a wife as opposed to a single woman, not with Gabriel himself. As Lady St. Vincent, Pandora will not be able to own and manage her own board game company, as she’s been intending to do ever since she had the idea back in Marrying Winterborne. Finally, after numerous conversations and a painful dancing lesson, Pandora agrees to marry Gabriel on the condition that he keep “obey” out of their vows and allow her to run her company, even though he will technically own it.
Ms. Kleypas does a good job with the characters of Evie and Sebastian here, keeping them mostly on the sidelines, and only occasionally offering advice. I’m sure it’s difficult as an author to ignore beloved characters when they’re in a scene, but doing so allows for more focus on Gabriel and Pandora and prevents the book from feeling like one extremely extended epilogue to Devil in Winter. However, one of the other pitfalls of writing about the children of past couples is how to go about the character development of the next generation. No one would want Evie and Sebastian to be anything less than perfect parents, and as a result their children all seem well-adjusted, particularly Gabriel. While that’s wonderful in an abstract sense, it makes for a bit of a boring hero. I liked Gabriel, but he was too perfectly perfect for me to really connect with.
Pandora is the saving grace here, because her personality feels irrepressible. She has trouble being ladylike, is determined to be a successful entrepreneur, and has her own set of insecurities due to a burst eardrum sustained in a childhood injury. Pandora’s distinct goals and issues kept me interested in the book, whereas Gabriel’s well-rounded perfection left me sad. As the son of one of my favorite romance couples, I so wanted to feel compelled by his story, but while Evie, Sebastian, and Pandora all have clear desires and struggles that made you care about them, Gabriel is a passive character who seems mostly content with his life. Well, content unless his wife is being threatened.
You may be wondering when Pandora is threatened, because the story I’ve described up to this point doesn’t seem all that dangerous. I won’t give everything away, but suffice it to say that after Gabriel and Pandora have settled into wedded bliss, an intrigue plot abruptly crops up, and although I do enjoy a bit of scheming from Ms. Kleypas, this clashes with the rest of the story. What I wanted was more character development and a deeper look at Gabriel and Pandora’s relationship – after all, it was mostly forged over the course of only seven days. Dangerous hi-jinks get in the way of a more character-driven romance towards the end.
I want to make it clear, though, that for all my disappointment with Gabriel’s character and the plot shift after their marriage, I still truly enjoyed Devil in Spring. Ms. Kleypas is one of my favorite authors, and for good reason. Her writing style has always been amusing and romantic, and I anticipate more from her soon, hopefully involving the bevy of secondary characters who show up here. The sharp intelligence and playfulness which shines through in Ms. Kleypas’ work is especially apparent in Gabriel’s siblings, and I hope that we’ll have the chance to read some of their stories after Ms. Kleypas has finished telling those of the Ravenel family.