House of Cads
House of Cads is the sequel to Elizabeth Kingston’s A Fallen Lady, a regency-era romance set in a small English village which introduced us to the lively and unapologetically hedonistic Frenchwoman, Marie-Anne de Vauteuil. Marie-Anne is beautiful, straightforward and unashamed of her colourful past; she’s had lovers, she makes no bones about the fact that she enjoys sex, and when the story opens, she’s a little downcast about the ending of her love affair with the village shoemaker because he’s getting married, and is seeking solace in the form of baked goods – which makes perfect sense to me. The comfort a good loaf and a tasty cake can provide should never be underestimated!
It’s immediately apparent that House of Cads is going to be a story that’s very different in tone to its predecessor, largely due to the force-of-nature that is Marie-Anne. Her perennial good humour, her sparking vivacity and wit and her no-nonsense attitude all speak to her philosophy that one should vivez la vie pleinement – live life to the fullest – and that attitude permeates the book, frequently bringing a smile to the lips as she sets about arranging her friends’ lives with brusque determination while at the same time discovering that perhaps there’s something in her own life that needs attention, too.
Hard on the heels of her disappointment in love (well, in her lover, anyway) comes a completely unexpected invitation from Lady Shipley to stay with the family at their London home. A couple of years earlier, Richard Shipley and Marie-Anne had fallen deeply in love – to horror of his parents who thought Marie-Anne no better than an opportunist whore. Regardless of their displeasure, the couple planned to marry, but Richard died suddenly, just days before the wedding, leaving a devastated Marie-Anne pregnant with his child. The shock of his death, together with his parents’ cruelty in barring her from his funeral brought on a miscarriage, and she retreated to the village of Bartle-on-the-Wold, which is where she met and befriended Helen, the heroine of A Fallen Lady. Marie-Anne is at a loss to explain this sudden turn of events, when she pulls another letter from the envelope, this one from the Shipley’s eldest daughter, Amy, begging her to come because her two younger sisters, Dahlia and Phyllida have attached themselves to unsuitable gentlemen, which is threatening her own engagement to a very proper young clergyman. The prospect of such a delightful spectacle awaiting her in London is just the antidote to boredom Marie-Anne had been looking for, and she immediately accepts the invitation.
Wealthy American businessman Spencer Mason might not speak French, but he knows a coup de foudre when it hits him. Which is exactly what happens in the middle Lady Huntingdon’s ballroom after he’s conversed with the lovely Frenchwoman with the sparkling wit and dimpled smile for all of about five minutes. The problem is, though (well, one of them, at least) is that he’s one of the unsuitable gentlemen to whom one of the Shipley girls has attached herself, and he doesn’t quite know how to disentangle himself from a situation and potential fiancée he really doesn’t want without upsetting the lady, her family or the business that has brought him to London in the first place. The strong mutual attraction that immediately springs up between him and Marie-Anne is an added complication… or perhaps it isn’t, when she tells him that she’s come to London to help sort out the muddled love affairs of the Shipley girls, and proceeds to work out just how to get him off the hook.
Readers learn early on that Mason isn’t who he says he is, and that he actually earns his living as a satirical cartoonist, something he obviously has to keep quiet if he’s to be able to gain entry into the social circles that will afford him the opportunity to observe and gather the information he needs in order to pursue his occupation. Given that both Marie-Anne and Helen have featured in the scandal sheets, it’s not surprising that Marie-Anne is upset to discover Mason’s true profession and reasons for being in London. But she’s discovered something else as well – that he’s a truly gifted artist, who should, she thinks, be using his talent in a far more positive way than just to lampoon the great and the good of English society.
The conflict in the romance derives basically from their opposing views on the nature of Mason’s profession; Marie-Anne thinks he should be doing better by himself, whereas Mason is full of self-doubt about his talent and his abilities, and is reluctant to leave behind the security of something he knows how to do in order to take a leap into the unknown and make a completely different life. Given he’s just twenty-three (to Marie-Anne’s thirty-one) it’s perhaps understandable that he doesn’t yet have the sort of confidence in himself that an older man might have; and I couldn’t help thinking at times that he was in danger of being flattened by the freight-train of energy and ideas that is Marie-Anne. She’s an engaging heroine – straightforward, unashamedly sexual and incredibly loyal to those she loves – but while I certainly appreciated those characteristics, she sometimes comes across as too modern for the time at which the book is set and is so strong a character that she overshadows everyone else in the book, including the hero. I also wasn’t wild about the way that Marie-Anne and Mason are finally able to overcome the issues that are keeping them apart, mostly because the resolution is arrived at courtesy of a big helping hand from another character. I generally prefer it when the principals in a romance work things out without too much outside influence, and while the ‘leg-up’ comes from a place of genuine friendship, it still smacks a little of the deus ex machina.
With all that said, there’s no question that Elizabeth Kingston is a very talented author. She writes with great insight and intelligence and she has a wonderfully deft touch when it comes to on-the-page humour. House of Cads is an enjoyable read with a breath-of-fresh-air heroine and a charming hero with chequered pasts, both of whom come to the realisation that they need to make changes in their attitudes and expectations if they are to live the lives they are meant to live. If you’re looking for a low-angst, sensual and light-hearted historical romance, it’s sure to appeal.