Lady Larkspur Declines
Many Regency authors have left to write single title romances, and many others have just plain left. Signet is clearly seeking out new talent to replace the old, and Sharon Sobel is the latest author to make her Regency debut. Like many other debuts, it’s an okay read – strong in some areas, weak in others.
When Lady Larkspur is jilted by her fiancé, her parents despair of ever seeing her married. She has four beautiful sisters who all managed to marry well, but Lark’s sharp tongue and fiery hair set her apart from the others, and seem to be a detriment on the marriage mart. When Lord Raeburn, a very much older distant cousin, makes an immediate offer for her, her parents accept, and tell her she has no choice but to marry him. Lark is horrified, but has an idea: Since Lord Raeburn is clearly motivated by a desire for an heir, she will feign serious illness. She figures if she can just keep it up long enough, he will fix his attention elsewhere.
There’s only one problem with the plan. Raeburn’s current heir, Benedict Queensman, is a doctor. Lark can easily fool Lord Raeburn and her family, but Benedict sees right through her disguise. He runs a hospital in Brighton, so he kindly suggests that she “recover” in a sanitarium close to his home. Her close friend Janet accompanies her, and Benedict escorts them both. Lark isn’t really sure what Benedict’s game is. They don’t get along with each other at all, yet both of them can’t help feeling some attraction. Lark doesn’t know whether Benedict is trying to help her avoid the unwanted marriage, or whether he intends to reveal her as a fraud.
While they are in Brighton, Lark and Benedict observe some odd goings-on. One of the sanitarium’s patients is a colonel who claims to have served in America, yet he has little knowledge of its geography. Benedict served in the British army during the Revolutionary War, so he quickly senses that something is not quite right. The colonel and his nephew also have a bizarre fixation with dissected maps (puzzles made out of real maps and mounted on wood). They seem particularly enchanted with a map of the nearby coastline. Benedict has more of an interest than most people suspect – because he is a secret confidante of the king. As this suspense plot plays out, Lark and Benedict fall in love with each other, and their relationship seems hopeless. Lark is betrothed to Lord Raeburn, who has entrusted Lark to Benedict’s care. Raeburn shows no signs of giving her up, regardless of the state of her health. Lark and Benedict need to find an honorable way out of the situation – and keep their wits about them long enough to solve the mystery and protect those around them.
This book has a couple of things going for it, not the least of which is the fact that it gets better as it goes along – always a preferable alternative to the “start with a bang and then tank big time” model. I more or less disliked Lark on sight, and since she spends most of the book being an outright bitch, I found it a little hard to warm up to her. However, I felt that the conflict became more interesting as the book went along. Even though I didn’t particularly like Lark, I do enjoy a good love triangle. Once Lark and Benedict cut down on their mutual sniping and became a couple in love struggling with notions of honor, honesty, and integrity, the book improved significantly. Naturally things work out for them, and though I won’t spoil the ending I will say that the resolution to their problem is very charming.
Another big plus is the setting, which is mostly in Brighton. I like reading about London as much as the next person (well, probably more than the next person), but it’s always refreshing to get a change of scene. Sometimes it seems like the only choices are London romance or country romance, so when an author makes an effort to set her book in Bath or Brighton – and adds the fun historical details – I always appreciate it.
So what doesn’t work? First and foremost, Lark’s bitchiness. I’m not sure why some authors confuse self-assuredness with rudeness, but that’s what happens here. Lark is publicly rude to Benedict on more than one occasion, and he really does very little to deserve such treatment. He’s a very nice guy, and though he pokes fun at Lark now and then, nothing he says to her ever justifies the nasty stuff she says to him. Many times I was not sure why he liked her in the first place. Fortunately, he manages to handle her in such a way that she eventually feels ashamed of herself. He also holds his own in their exchanges without stooping quite to her level (in other words, he’s not a wimp).
The whole suspense plot is also a detraction. From start to finish, it’s completely obvious what’s going on. The fact that it takes Lark some time to catch on is not really to her credit. The clues are deposited into the story with such a heavy hand that they are impossible to miss. Rather than adding to the story, the suspense just seems to get in the way of the subtle, more interesting stuff – like the love story.
Interestingly enough, the whole feigning illness plot was itself a mixed bag. Initially, it all seemed so cruel and dishonest. Lark’s family really loves her, and even though her father was prepared to marry her off to some old lout, the rest of them are genuinely worried about her. As the plot unfolds, though, Lark has to face the reality of what she’s done, and many of the consequences are really difficult for her. She actually pretends that she’s too weak to walk, and she has to be carried everywhere. That gets old fast. Her feelings compound as the charade continues far longer than she had intended, and Lark grows and changes in the process.
Overall, Lady Larkspur Declines is an average read, which isn’t bad for a first book. Perhaps Sobel’s work will become more even with time. As to whether you should pick it up, that probably depends on how much you like Brighton – or dislike bitchy heroines.