In Search of Scandal
In Search of Scandal, the first in a new series of historical romances by Susanne Lord is the author’s first novel, and a very strong début it is. She is clearly an excellent storyteller, having crafted a compelling and emotionally nuanced tale featuring a hero with an unusual background and a romance in which both protagonists have changes and reassessments to make if they are going to make things work between them.
On the downside, the heroine is rather irritating for the first part of the book, and her motivations are either unclear or simply don’t make sense; and there were a few times I felt that something needed fleshing out more or further exploration. But on the whole it’s a well-written and very readable story that will definitely appeal to readers who, like me, like their romances with a goodly-sized side-order of angst.
The plot turns on the rather complicated family situation of the heroine, Charlotte Baker. Her sister married an earl, and that, together with Charlotte’s vivacious beauty, ensured that she was much admired and courted by many gentlemen. But when the earl died and Lucy re-married (for love) an untitled botanist, that, and their origins as ‘commoners’ meant that the family was no longer accepted by the ton. While Ben and Lucy don’t appear to care all that much about it, Charlotte now sees it as her responsibility to make a good match so that the family can be elevated once more and so that she can ensure her younger sisters are accepted into society and have the chance to make good marriages. Further complicating matters is the fact that her brother Wallace was recently the subject of a sodomy trial, but this only makes her all the more determined to restore her family’s name and reputation.
One of her brother’s associates, William Repton, has recently returned to London after five years spent exploring and collecting plant specimens from Tibet and China. Charlotte has eagerly followed the written accounts of his expeditions published by the Geographical Society, and, over the years, has built an image in her mind of him as the perfect man – handsome, kind, daring and brave – and just the man for her. If she weds a man of such celebrity, she believes, every door will be open to her and her family, so not only will she have accomplished her aim in their regard, she will have secured herself the husband of her dreams.
Her first sight of Will Repton only reinforces her belief in the rightness of her scheme – he’s absolutely gorgeous (even though he walks with a pronounced limp) and although he seems quite shy, Charlotte is convinced he is “the one” and is sure it won’t be long before he joins her queue of suitors. But what Charlotte reads as an endearing shyness is in fact a disinclination to have anything to do with her and a strong discomfort with her obvious hero worship.
The sole survivor of a horrifying attack, Will Repton is a broken man, haunted by memories and dreams of the friends and colleagues he has lost and by his last sight of their camp, a grizzly, blood soaked nightmare of bodies and remains. He returned to England only because he was too ill to prevent his being sent home, and now all his focus is on raising enough money to enable him to return to China on another expedition. He desperately needs to exorcise his survivor’s guilt and to atone for the act he believes saved his life at the expense of the others of his party; and even though he finds himself strongly attracted to Charlotte, the last thing he wants or needs in his life is to form any sort of emotional attachment, let alone one to a woman who will no doubt want him to remain by her side.
Will is fascinating, a decent, honourable, self-deprecating man who has been devastated by circumstance, and the author explores his character and motivations in such a way as to make the reader experience his discomfort and the feeling that he is somehow ‘out of step’ with everyone around him. While he is at times unkind to Charlotte in his attempts to dispel her fantasies about him and to make clear his unwillingness to join her band of suitors, Ms Lord skilfully keeps him on the right side of the line between ‘hero’ and ‘arsehole’ by making the reader aware that his actions are well-intentioned and designed to stop Charlotte getting in too deep given his intent to leave England in the near future. She just as skilfully shows the reader the strength of Will’s reluctant, growing interest in Charlotte by the way in which he expresses his disdain for the suitor who can’t be bothered to learn her favourite flower, or how he always insists that the weather is about to turn for the worse when that suitor is taking her out for a drive.
As I mentioned at the outset, Charlotte is a difficult character to warm to. She is obviously more in love with the idea of Will than she can actually be with HIM, given that she hasn’t even met him before the story opens. It’s not until the second half of the book that she comes into clearer focus and becomes the sort of character one wishes to root for, and even then there were times I wanted to smack her. When circumstances lead to their having to make a hasty marriage, she decides to sacrifice her own happiness for the chance to be with Will, even for a short time, and this means being unfailingly cheerful and not letting him know of her deeper thoughts and feelings. But this only muddies the waters between them even further, hampering their attempts to understand each other and to be together happily for the few months they have agreed to. The misunderstandings and miscommunications between them in the latter part of the book are heartrending and even painful, making it difficult to see how they can possibly be resolved to give both characters the ending they deserve.
I’m certainly going to be giving the book a recommendation, although there are a few things that prevent my rating it more highly. There are some elements that are somewhat glossed over, such as Charlotte’s family dynamic and her brother’s trial; and I never quite understood why Charlotte believed that her family would once more be embraced by the ton simply because she had a famous husband. (They would have been flavour of the month for a while and then quickly forgotten, I imagine.) The romantic and sexual tension between the protagonists is very well written with some deliciously steamy moments between Charlotte and Will, but the climactic love scene towards the end happens almost out of the blue and goes completely against everything Will has said up until that point. There is also a secondary plot featuring one of Charlotte’s thwarted suitors which is overly melodramatic and which could have been omitted without any adverse effect on the main story.
But as I’ve said, this is a very strong début in spite of those weaknesses, and I am definitely looking forward to reading more of Susanne Lord’s work. In Search of Scandal is well-written, the characters are strongly drawn and the romance is well-developed, with advances and set-backs along the way that add depth to the relationship and strengthen the feeling of a growing emotional connection between the principals. It’s highly accomplished for a first novel, and has convinced me that Ms Lord is an author to watch.