One Whisper Away
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good romance must be in want of a credible tale. Ms. Wildes, who references Jane Austen in her latest Regency romance, One Whisper Away, does not have one.
The story begins with a glass of spilled champagne and an unlikely whisper. Jonathan Bourne, the part-Iroquois Earl of Augustine, has recently come to England to take up his earldom and to marry off his three half-sisters. As the novel begins, he is somewhat inexplicably (he hates this sort of thing) at a ball. Also at the soirée is the stunning Lady Cecily Francis. A randomly gesticulating oaf spills a glass of bubbly on Cecily’s bosom. Jonathan wipes her breasts dry with his handkerchief, whispers to her that he’d rather lick it off, and then saunters away. None of this makes much sense. As written by Ms. Wildes, Jonathan is so ethical he lectures the bored ton matrons who sneak into his bed about the sanctity of marriage. He is an unlikely candidate for the aggressive overture Ms. Wildes saddles him with.
Jonathan is an amalgam of archetypes: Soulful Native American, sexy seducer, stricken swain. He serves as a medium for the clear moral of this novel: It is more satisfying and morally superior not to follow the common edicts of the polite society. In One Whisper Away, Jonathan – and indeed every main character – behaves in a way that, were they to be caught and subject to social scrutiny, would result in them being banned from not just Almack’s Assembly Rooms but all aristocratic gatherings. I would have been less bothered by this rash display of behavior if the story gave these people a context that explained their actions. But the plot and setting of this novel is the over-explored Regency realm romance readers know well. As I read this book, I wondered why Ms. Wildes set it in the time period she did. Her characters behaved in decidedly modern ways and, placed as they are in early 1800’s England, their actions are implausible.
It does make sense that Cecily would be drawn to Jonathan. Her peers call him Earl Savage because of his heritage and because he hails from that untamed land across the Atlantic. Cecily is instantly aroused by both the man and his wildness. And the reader doesn’t blame her. The poor woman is stuck in boorish British society while being courted by the nice but dull Lord Drury (one Elijah Winters) whom Cecily really does not want to marry. Not only is the man uninteresting, her vivacious and brilliant sister Eleanor — here again, inexplicably — wants the man for herself.
In some ways, the two romances take the path one would expect. Cecily pursues Jonathan and pushes Elijah Eleanor’s way. Everyone involved learns not to judge Jonathan by the color of his skin. However, both courtships involve improbable not-so-secret trips to a lover’s bedroom and many a crazed risk. Jonathan and Cecily have an amazingly public sex life. They, before they are engaged, make love in her bedroom which, incredibly, her father is aware of. Once promised to one another, the two share aquatic afternoon delight in her family’s pond. The latter encounter leads, in an odd way, to a late in the book murder. That killing is part of a minor suspense schemata and is so removed from the rest of the plot I can only assume such machinations are now required in historical romance. Thrown into the mix is — I am not making this up—a small magic stone that somehow lets its owner know the inchoate wishes of the spirits.
All of the sex, spirits, and shenanigans are written in the broadest of terms. Ms. Wildes uses six words or phrases where two would do. Her characters speak to one another in such stilted ways, it’s a wonder their relationships flourished. Jonathan proposes to Cecily by saying, “Become my wife in truth so we are not perpetrating a farce of an engagement on both our families, so neither of us is perjuring ourself to society — not that I care about that aspect of it for myself, but your reputation does matter to me — and for the sake of my sisters, I do not want to cause further whispers.” Amazingly, she promptly propositions him, proving that in this book, sex is more interesting than words.
Did I care for anything about this book? Yes. The lead women in the book — Cecily, Eleanor, and Jonathan’s sister Lily — are lovely, interesting women. Lily, the heroine of the next book in this series, is a complex, winning figure who (for reasons easy to figure out) has opted for ruin rather than marriage. Eleanor and Cecily have a wonderful sister/friend relationship and I enjoyed watching them manage all the men in the book. Ms. Wildes is known for writing passionate love scenes and she does such well here. I particularly relished the confidence with which she asserts there was one sure way to “make sure a female found sexual satisfaction.” I foresee women everywhere leaving the book open to page 199 in the hopes that their partners will follow Jonathan’s lead.
I like several of Ms. Wildes other books and did not find them to be as over-written and contextually disconcerting as One Whisper Away. I suspect that, in this book, Ms. Wildes is trying to teach readers about the dangers of bigotry and rigid propriety. The novel’s message is loud and clear: A culture that only values those who look and think like Regency aristocrats is an intolerant one. But I don’t read romances just for the lessons they teach. I also read for the pleasures of compelling, viable characters and context. In this one, only the heroines were compelling and the context was askew. Like spilled champagne, I found the experience of reading it to be a bit flat.