How to Impress a Marquess
One of the things I’ve appreciated most about the books I’ve read by Susanna Ives has been her ability to create relatable, multi-layered characters and storylines which are just a little different to those normally found in an historical romance. In her latest book, How to Impress a Marquess, however, she has opted to follow a fairly well-trod-path; the stuffy-hero-loosened-up-by-free-spirited-heroine one – and while the central characters are reasonably engaging and are eventually shown to have more depth than it at first seems, I couldn’t rid myself of that “been here, done that” feeling. Added to this, the heroine drove me bonkers for a large chunk of the first half of the book, and the hero, while supposedly very upstanding and mindful of propriety, does and says a number of things (such as uttering the word “fuck” within the heroine’s hearing) that are not only anachronistic, but which completely contradict the personality the author has given him. The second half of the book is much stronger than the first, as that’s where we are given insight into what is driving these two people and why they are the way they are, but had I not been reading it for review, I’m not sure I’d have been able to put up with the heroine’s antics for long enough to get to the good stuff.
Lilith Dahlgren has been pushed from pillar to post for almost her entire life. When her widowed mother remarried into the wealthy and influential Maryle family, Lilith was not welcome at the family home and was sent away to school. Her feelings of abandonment manifested in her becoming increasingly rebellious, leading to her having to change schools frequently. When her education was finished, and after the death of her mother, Lilith was taken in by a couple of distant cousins, who encouraged her unconventionality and her interest in the arts. Now aged twenty-three and enjoying her Bohemian lifestyle, she chafes under the guardianship of George, Marquess of Marylewick, who controls her purse-strings until she comes of age, and who is determined to find her a suitable husband. Lilith and George are chalk and cheese; at thirty-one, he is the head of his family, responsible for overseeing their numerous estates, looking out for his siblings and tenants, carrying out his Parliamentary duties and a million-and-one other things that take up almost all of his time. His one self-indulgence is found within the pages of McAllister’s Magazine, which is currently serialising a story entitled Colette and the Sultan, in which the virtuous heroine has been kidnapped by – you guessed it – an evil Sultan. It’s not a salacious story, but George is rather smitten with the loving, true and compassionate Colette and has no idea whatsoever that his rebellious ward is the author and has used him as the inspiration for the evil Sultan.[On a side note, the ‘heroine-as-secret-author’ trope seems to be flavour of the month in historicals at the moment; I’ve read a lot of them lately.]
Their opposing natures naturally mean that George and Lilith butt-heads often, yet even as everything about George drives Lilith to distraction, she also enjoys baiting him and can’t help noticing that he’s gorgeous. And while George wants to be rid of the millstone around his neck that is Lilith, he can’t quash his inconvenient physical attraction to her, making it even more imperative that he find her a husband as soon as possible.
The author does a good job of mixing the light and darker elements of the story, and once she started to show exactly why Lilith behaves as she does, I found the character easier to warm to. She is unconventional, kind and insightful, yet while there’s no denying she has good reason to feel the way she does, I was irritated by her inability to put herself in someone else’s place and her continual need to push a situation to its very limits.
George is an attractive enough hero, but he’s a bit of a stereotype – the heir with an artistic soul whose father thought his interests weren’t masculine enough and beat them out of him. The scene in which Lilith shows him his youthful drawings is quite moving and I enjoyed seeing him finally achieve a balance in his life; but he’s a little bland overall.
I’ve already mentioned that I had problems with the heroine in the story, but that’s not the only thing preventing me from rating the book more highly. For one thing, the central relationship is built on what is quite possibly the most “insta” case of insta-lust I’ve ever read in an historical, and the romance isn’t particularly well developed. I also didn’t like that Lilith used her writing to vent her frustration over what she perceives as George’s poor treatment of her. Her conversations with her Muse are sometimes amusing, but mostly this element seems present so that Lilith can daydream about George, and then provide some conflict late in the story, because of course, these secret-identity-things never turn out well. I can’t say much without spoilers, but what happens after it becomes known that the evil Sultan is based upon George is quite ridiculous.
Ultimately, How to Impress a Marquess is a bit of a mixed bag. On the positive side, the writing is generally good and the secondary characters are well drawn – although the monstrous Lady Marylewick is more of a caricature than a character; and the author makes some very good points about the need to be true to oneself and about the lasting effects of bullying and social pressure. Even given my reservations about Lilith’s character, I did appreciate her for her desire to belong, to love and be loved for who and what she was; and I enjoyed George’s gradual rediscovery of his true self and his big romantic gesture towards the end. But there are too many negatives – the serial-as-plot-device, the absence of a strong sense of time and place, Lilith’s unrealistic and often selfish behaviour, the lack of chemistry between the leads, and too many anachronisms, Americanisms and downright odd uses of language (no British person would talk about the need to “get quids”, for example) – for me to feel able to give the book a recommendation.