Diary of an Accidental Wallflower
Beautiful coronet-digger Claire Westmore, one of the Mean Girls of the 1848 season, seems to have caught the eye of the future Duke of Harrington – but a sprained ankle derails her social plans. Now, Claire finds her own eye wandering to Daniel Merial – not a duke, but a doctor, and an impoverished one at that. This book is a great Victorian version of the ever-popular ton regency, and I enjoyed it.
Claire’s injury leads to regular visits by Daniel, who struggles to fight the attraction he feels to this new patient. He bonds with her unconventional siblings, who become his allies in the quest not just to heal Claire’s ankle, but to repair her personality. Claire’s family is aristocratic but disreputable. Her parents have a disastrous marriage, her younger sister Lucy wants to dress like a boy and take up social crusades, and her brother Geoffrey has just been expelled from Eton. Claire therefore hopes that a marriage will secure her respectability, and is willing to change herself to be as much the “ideal candidate” as she can become. She diets to keep her weight down, abandons old interests and adventuring with her siblings, and is quite careful not to speak her mind. Even this, however, may not save Claire when an old scandal comes to the surface.
I liked that McQuiston took on an unusual heroine type. Claire wouldn’t have even been a villainess in another book; she’s too deliberately bland. Some authors are bold enough to write about a mean girl, but it was very interesting for McQuiston to take on their flunky. She does a good job demonstrating to us that Claire’s public character is a facade, and showing that Daniel is the man who brings out the good person underneath. That being said, neither of them is tremendously complex. Claire rejects things that are not socially acceptable and has to learn to accept or reject them on their own merits; Daniel wants to heal and take care of people, including Claire, and grows very little.
Rather than feeling like it’s set in the historical 1840s, Wallflowerseems to exist in the same fuzzy ton-out-of-time that includes Georgians, Regencies, and Victorians. The characters attend authentic period events, or do authentic period medicine, without being authentic period people themselves. Claire’s quest for the coronet doesn’t feel all that more serious than a high school girl’s desire to be prom queen. Claire has money. She has family, so she won’t be lonely. The worst that can happen is that she will end up less privileged than she might be. Perhaps it would have helped for McQuiston to showcase some characters forced into genteel poverty by marrying without strategy, or characters excluded from core society, so we could see what she might lose.
McQuiston’s supporting characters are three-dimensional and also serve plot functions beyond listening sympathetically to the heroine. Claire’s mean-girl “friend,” who uses Claire’s injury as a chance to make her own play for the duke’s heir, is delightfully unexpected in a subgenre known for tight, uncomplicated female friendships (well, who’d buy the sequels starring backstabbers?). While you know that Claire needs to become less shallow in her goals, you can’t help but empathize with her desire not to be whispered about and excluded. Claire’s sister Lucy, knowing her height and frame are unfashionably large, tries to cope by rejecting conventions of femininity. Geoffrey is provokingly vulgar because he’s lost at an awkward age. Daniel has to help Claire learn to value her siblings over people who judge their appearances, and Geoffrey and Lucy start to realize that they still have to consider the images they project.
Some nitpicks. Daniel’s relationship to money was inconsistent and extreme. He lives in squalor so he can fund his experiments, but he won’t accept his patroness’s funding for his anesthetic experiments, which are so important to him that he routinely endangers himself by knocking himself unconscious. Then he turns around and gives money to a prostitute and buys expensive candies for Claire. It didn’t make sense. I felt like his poverty was made so dire to raise the contrast between him and Claire, but it was unnecessary. An ordinary doctor and an aristocrat’s daughter would have had a gulf regardless. The “diary” conceit, with a page or two of Claire’s thoughts every now and then, was utterly unnecessary. Claire’s diary voice was jarringly modern, and nothing was revealed in any of those excerpts that hadn’t already come up in the previous chapters.
There are so many London-set historicals that it is hard to find one that is so compelling, unique, and intricate that I’d give it a DIK. Although Wallflower falls short of that mark, it was still a very enjoyable read that distinguished itself through unusual characters. Fans of historicals should definitely give it a read.