Lord Nightingale's Triumph
Lord Nightingale’s Triumph is the latest installment in an ambitious Regency soap opera whose reach exceeds its grasp. This book is every inch the soap, with paper-thin characters and ludicrous-but-intriguing plot twists from long-lost twins to buried treasure. Unfortunately, in hewing so closely to the rules of soap opera, the book lets a few crucial rules of the romance genre fall by the wayside, and while the book has its moments, the whole is not as entertaining as some of its parts.
The biggest genre violation is that the romance between Peter Winthrop and Mary Butterberry is not the most important story; it competes with several other plot-lines. A great deal of the most important action, such as the pair meeting and falling in love, appears to have taken place in other books. As the story begins, Peter has kidnapped Lord Nightingale, the macaw who brings the series together, and Mary has intercepted him on his way to London. Mary insists on staying by his side, so Peter slows down in hopes that Mary’s irate clergyman father will collect her. In theory, Peter is tormented and Mary is irrepressible, but both characters, like everyone else in the book, are too flimsy and farcical to bear up under the weight of real emotions. Imagine if the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest decided to act out Rebel Without A Cause; they simply aren’t designed for it.
Meanwhile, there are other plots involving the further adventures of Lord Nightingale’s owners and the de-curmudgeonization of Peter’s long-lost father by a saccharine munchkin named Delight. Delight is a sort of road-company Shirley Temple who talks exactly like a resident of Walt Kelly’s Okeefenokee swamp, “caterpiggles” and all. She’s meant to be cute as a bug, but I just wanted to squash her. However if, like my grandma, you find the little girls on Full House to be utterly adorable, then Delight may delight you after all.
There are two bright spots that hint at better things to come. The first is Lord Nightingale himself – easily the most realistic character in the book, which is something of a double-edged sword since he isn’t human. The other characters are drawn from soaps and farces, not real people; Lord Nightingale seems like a real bird.
The other bright spot is the language. The author has an ear for period speech and she immerses the reader in it. This talent is rare, and a badly-done period “voice” can make every page a grinding agony. Even Delight’s comic-strip speech, though irritating, is at least consistent. However, I wish the expressions had been more interesting and amusing, to justify the effort of reading them. There’s a pay-off to learning to “hear” PG Wodehouse’s writing; the most unremarkable descriptions become delightfully wry and if you aren’t careful you emerge speaking like Bertie Wooster for hours. The language in this book is similarly enveloping but missing a crucial spark – it’s like hearing a concerto performed with technical mastery but not enough joy.
Still, technical mastery is no small thing. As with Mutiny at Almack’s, another book by Lansdowne that doesn’t quite live up to its clever premise, I appreciate the author’s willingness to make the attempt. All of my favorite authors are risk-takers, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that Judith Lansdowne eventually bats one out of the park. It didn’t happen with this book, but I will keep an ear out in the future.