How to Be a Wallflower
While I’ve long been a fan of Eloisa James, I have to admit that How to Be a Wallflower is not among my favorite of her works. This upbeat tale about an English heiress marrying an American businessman is sweet, but didn’t bring enough genuine conflict to the table to hold my interest.
As the story opens, Miss Cleopatra Lewis is planning her entrée into London society. Her mother was the daughter of a viscount who ran off with a servant – a good pick, since said servant went on to found Lewis Commodes, making Cleo an heiress upon his death. Unfortunately, her mother had other interests, so Cleo spent most of her youth traveling in the wake of acting troupes and observing her mother’s many affaires with stars of the stage, rather than ensconced in a stable home. After her mother’s death, Cleo decides it is high time to meet her grandfather and take her place in society, as the viscount is the only family she has left. However, the legacy of her flighty mother leaves its mark on Cleo, and makes her wary of attracting any suitors for fear they will be inconstant or untrustworthy. Thus Cleo determines she will be a wallflower during the season (despite her fiery hair and temperament, not to mention the enormous wealth of Lewis Commodes).
Jacob Astor Addison is the American equivalent of nobility, hailing from ‘old money’. He is in London on business, and visiting with friends from other books, when he encounters Cleo in a costume shop he was planning to purchase. Cleo, thinking to rescue the proprietress from what she believes is an unfair deal, makes her own offer for the shop, and in short order Cleo and Jake are facing off against each other. While the first round goes to Cleo, Jake is clearly struck by her and determined to follow up.
That ‘follow up’ slowly morphs from business rivalry to courtship with each new interaction. When Jake hatches a scheme to make the shop, Quimby’s, unappealing to the public and thus ruin Cleo’s plans for its expansion, he tells Cleo his plot immediately out of a sense of “fair play”. This allows her to plan a counterattack, and before long the two of them are in Quimby’s together ordering new wardrobes for each other in what amounts to an elaborate inside joke. At which point the only question on anyone’s mind is: when will Jake pop the question?
Literally, that’s all Cleo’s servants ask. Which makes sense given the slow build of daily bouquets, breakfasts, afternoons spent reading contracts together, and of course the onset of their affair. Cleo and Jake are clearly falling in love, and although they don’t discuss it much, Cleo’s doubts about marriage fall away at the same pace as Jake’s certainty that he will marry her and settle in England grows.
In other words, when you strip away the confusing game of who is buying the costume shop, this is a straightforward story of two people falling in love and then choosing to be with each other. They’re a little slow about communicating their readiness to marry, sure, which causes a little confusion and hurt at the end – but it’s nothing that can’t be overcome in a quick, honest conversation. Once they do that, it’s home free to happy ever after. And while I loved that – I loved that both characters are reasonable people, and of course loved the happy ending – I couldn’t help but feel like there was something missing from the story. Without a more difficult central conflict, it lackssome of the depth I’ve enjoyed in other works by Ms. James.
So while the writing is sharp, the pacing is even, and the characters work well together, I’m afraid this book falls lower on the charts for me. Without a strong central conflict to drive the plot, I had too easy a time stepping away from How to Be a Wallflower, despite its other charms.