Desert Isle Keeper
Libby's London Merchant
Reissues of old titles usually produce grumbling from the AAR staff, as we see precious bookstore shelf space going to the umpteen-billionth reprint of titles by the usual select group of superstar authors. Not this time, though. For us, the news that Signet is bringing back Carla Kelly’s delightful – and surprising – Libby’s London Merchant gives us reason to cheer. It’s a wonderful story of a girl who must choose between two men, neither of whom is what he seems to be at first glance.
Eustace Wiltmore is broke and desperate. The only way he can see out of his fix is to wed a certain Miss Ames, the daughter of a family friend, but he doesn’t want to marry the girl sight unseen. So one drunken night he enlists the aid of his best friend Benedict Nesbitt, Duke of Knaresborough. Nez will travel down to Kent in disguise and stage an accident in front of the house of the female in question. That way he can inspect the chit at close range and bring back a report to the spineless Eustace.
With great reluctance, Nez undertakes his mission. Eustace has obtained a sample box of chocolates, so Nez will pass himself off as Nesbitt Duke, salesman for Copley Chocolates. He manages to find the right house and is on the verge of arranging his “accident,” when, in an ironic twist, he has a real accident and is knocked unconscious. When he opens his eyes in unfamiliar surroundings, he sees an angel, and promptly falls in love.
Since their return to England following the death of her soldier father, Libby Ames and her family have been living in the home of her uncle. Uncle Ames has taken his own daughter Lydia and his sister-in-law to Brighton, so Libby and her brother Joseph are home alone. Anthony Cook, the neighborhood physician whose knack for running into furniture has afforded Libby and her cousin hours of secret merriment, has stopped by for a visit. When Joseph runs up to with the story of a terrible accident involving a gig and a man who’s been behaving strangely, Dr. Cook takes off to the scene, returning with the injured man. And the story takes off.
So many wonderful characters! First, there is Libby – a young lady bearing the burden of a less-than-advantageous birth, who nevertheless is blessed with an optimistic outlook on life. She finds herself confronted by two suitors as different as night and day. Dr. Cook is stolid, unflappable, quietly genial and reticent, while “Mr. Duke” flirts outrageously with his hostess; despite his outwardly shabby appearance, he carries a refined air about him that gives Libby pause more than once. Nobility of birth, however, does not always equate with nobility of character, and the more she comes to know both men, the more Libby becomes aware of the contrasts between them.
As one would expect, Mrs. Kelly displays her formidable talent for layering emotion and revelation in just a few words and gestures. Her ability to show, not tell, is so great as to seem almost transparent: the writing is so good that the reader doesn’t even pay attention to it at first, which is as it should be. There’s a naturalness to the dialogue, and description never overwhelms the progress of the action, as happens in all too many Regency Romances. Moreover, while it’s obvious that much research lies behind events and characterizations, the book avoids taking on a didactic tone, so the reader doesn’t get the feeling that she’s being force-fed any history.
One of the greatest strengths of this book is the seamless way Mrs. Kelly weaves elements of comedy and tragedy and gives an air of credibility to each. The unrequited love Dr. Cook feels for Libby and the basic pretext for Nez’s journey are pretty amusing. But just around the corner from these are some serious themes. There’s the way Libby’s grandfather cut off his son because of his disastrous marriage; Nez’s struggle with incipient alcoholism, and Anthony’s unwavering support of the duke in the most difficult battle he will ever wage; the scars both Libby and Nez carry, and the bond they share, from years of exposure to war; Joseph’s mental limitations and the ugly, secret reason Anthony’s father holds the boy in such contempt.
The fact that this story is bundled in a two-in-one volume with Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour is just another reason for Regency fans to celebrate. Both books were out of print and pretty hard to find, but now more readers will have a chance to become acquainted with the marvelous writing skills of a true mistress of the Regency romance. Knowing Carla Kelly is back in print brings a smile to my face, and once you read Libby’s London Merchant, you’ll be smiling too.