Once Upon a Sofa
I’m of two minds about Once Upon a Sofa’s cover. On the one hand, it’s really fun. It’s the first cartoon cover I’ve seen on a Regency, and I like cartoon covers. It signals an interesting new direction in the formerly stale world of Regency cover art, and it’s a change I welcome. On the other hand, it doesn’t reflect the content of the book very well. Judging by the cover, I’d expect this to be a humorous romance, but it’s almost never funny. That’s not to say it’s bad – just more serious than the cover would lead you to believe.
Compounding the problem somewhat is the back cover copy, which has a glaring error. It reads: “In a mad Moment, Lady Isabel Ashby surrenders to a passionate kiss from the earl to whom she is betrothed. Then the door flies open and the rest of the party guests stumble in – and Isabel finds that she has kissed not the earl, but his brother!” Sounds kind of fun, right? Sounds like it would fit the wacky cover, too. But the plot is actually quite different. Isabel is not engaged to anyone. She is trying to entrap an earl, who is well aware of her plan, so he sends in his friend instead. It’s amazing how those nuances change the nature of the story.
Anyway, Isabel gets caught kissing Major Sidney Chamberlayne. He’s home from the war and on half pay, so he’s not quite the catch she had in mind. Isabel is a practical girl; she’s a widow who married well the first time around, and she plans for her second marriage to be just as advantageous. Sidney does, in fact, do the proper thing and offer for her in front of the shocked guests. Isabel has no plans to accept. However, events soon take on a life of their own. Sidney comes to Isabel’s home the next day to formally propose. She intends to decline, but at the last minute she accepts, thinking she will have plenty of time later to cry off. But Sidney has a special license in his pocket and insists on marrying her within the week. One thing leads to another, and they are married.
From that point, the book becomes something of a marriage of convenience story. Isabel has a bad attitude at the start, and shows little enthusiasm for her new marriage. Sidney’s family is even less sanguine. His brother is an earl (though not the one Isabel had set her cap for, as the back cover would lead you to believe), and he feels that Isabel runs with a fast crowd. He doesn’t trust her and is sure she will damage the family’s reputation at a critical time – their younger sister Julia is making her come out. On top of these problems, Sidney has professional concerns. He needs to adjust to life off the battlefield and find his niche. He thinks he’s found it in behind-the-scenes intelligence work, which unfortunately takes him away from his new wife just when they are warming up to each other. In the end, Sidney’s personal and professional lives intersect, and the people he loves most may be in danger.
Over all, I found this to be a fairly thoughtful portrayal of a forced marriage and the love that follows after the fact. Interestingly, the last book I read (Amanda Scott’s Lord of the Isles, for Pandora’s Box) had more or less the same plot, only in that book the hero was the reluctant party. Both books have a couple that met and married quickly and must become accustomed to each other’s quirks. I also had a similar problem with both books: I lacked patience with the reluctant party. In this case, it was Isabel. I had trouble warming up to her because she begins the book as mercenary, then sulks when her plans don’t come to fruition. I had little respect for her scheme in the first place, and I thought her sulky behavior at the beginning of her marriage was out of line. She wasn’t hurting for money, and she found Sidney attractive. He’s a nice guy, and a better one than she deserves. Fortunately she comes to realize that, and in the process she also has to face the fact that her past behavior and former companions were not all that they should have been.
Sidney is likable and interesting, and a good match for Isabel. I would have liked a little more insight into why he really wanted to marry her and how he came to that decision so quickly, but he was such a nice guy (without being a wimp) that I was willing to let it go. There are some nice thoughts about his growing up years and his relationship with his older brother that are handled in a subtle way. I also liked his ruminations about his post-war career. But once he figured out what to do with himself, the book bogged down a bit. The whole suspense/intelligence plot felt rushed and more than a little trite. It’s pretty rare to find a traditional Regency that fits a good, fully-fleshed suspense plot in; in most cases they simply come across as rushed and sketchy. In most cases, the book would be better off if the author just focused on the romance. This is no exception. The interaction between Sidney and Isabel is interesting, and so are the family dynamics struggles. The book works best when it sticks to those topics.
Even with those flaws, I think it’s a promising debut. The writing style’s not bad, and the characters at least had a personality (even if the heroine’s was overly petulant at times). It may not be the fantastic, break-out read I am always hoping for in a Regency, but those looking for a new author in a sub-genre in danger of being extinguished might find it worth a look.