Sugarplum Surprises is exactly the type of book I hope to read when I open a traditional Regency Romance. It has a worthy heroine who is somewhat down on her luck, a noble hero (who is the furthest thing from a cad), a fun Bath setting, period detail (and period mores), an engaging plot that never strikes a false note, and smart, lyrical writing. Oh, and it’s Christmas. Who could ask for anything more?
Jane Nichol is known to everyone in Bath as Madame Nicolette. When her stepmother tried to force her into marriage with an undesirable old man, Jane fled to Bath and established herself as a seamstress. A wig, padding, and heavy make-up add years to her appearance, and her skill with a needle has made her business a modest success. All appears to be in danger of ruin when her biggest customer rushes into the shop to tell Jane that her wedding is off. Edward Brydges, Duke of Chandrose, has jilted his fiancée, and Jane is stuck with an expensive trousseau that no one will pay for. Desperate to save her business, Jane appears at a ball dressed in one of the not-paid-for gowns, confronts Edward, and asks him to pay for the trousseau so her “friend” Madame Nicolette will not be ruined.
The confrontation seems unsuccessful, so Jane is surprised to see Edward at the door to her shop the next morning. He pays her twice the price of the trousseau, but unlike the rest of Bath, he sees right through Madame’s disguise and realizes she is Jane. He thinks she may be up to no good, so he vows to find out why she is disguising herself. As an excuse to see her more often, he sends his sisters to her shop to order new ball gowns for Christmas. He lets her know that he is aware of her identity and continues to meet her. When she confides the reason for her flight from her family, Edward finds himself very sympathetic. Meanwhile, the patronage of the duke’s sisters has caused Jane’s business to go through the roof. She hires out piecework all over Bath and works her fingers to the bone. All the while, she finds herself starting to dream of Edward, but she knows she must hide her feelings. Why would a duke marry a dressmaker, even if she is the daughter of a baron? Edward is also very attracted to Jane, but he wonders if he dare risk his heart after his recent fiasco with the former fiancée. He is also quite aware of the differences between their station.
There were so many things that I just loved about this book. Edward is a delightful hero, one of the real good guys. I was coming off a romance where the hero was a total jerk, and there couldn’t have been more of a contrast. So many heroes would use Jane’s deception as an excuse to treat her like dirt. Edward is skeptical at first, but he doesn’t automatically believe the worst of her, and he never treats her with anything but respect. He worries about her and brings her thoughtful little presents. He brings gifts to the poor. When he is concerned about the differences in their station, his worry is not for himself, but for his mother and sisters. There is a wonderful scene where Jane and Edward are at a party, trying to avoid some people who will recognize Jane. As he’s sneaking around, he is increasingly attracted to Jane, yet he also feels a measure of shame for the sneaking around. Heroes just don’t get more noble and honorable than Edward.
The plot is more driven by Jane’s character, and she is almost as endearing as Edward. Often stories with someone in disguise can seem terribly contrived, but Jane’s struggles and the decisions she makes actually seem realistic. It’s clear that her financial situation is precarious, and the revelation of her identity is always possible. Yet even though she is extremely busy preparing gowns for Christmas festivities, her thoughts keep returning to Edward. She feels she is below his touch, but she can’t help wishing for him anyway. What I also liked about her is that the reasons for her flight seem valid, yet her stepmother isn’t exactly completely evil (though she is certainly peevish, unkind, and highly motivated by money).
My previous experience with Fairchild’s work is limited to short stories in anthologies. I liked some of them, but I don’t think they were really an adequate showcase for her writing talents. It’s been awhile since I was this impressed with an author’s prose style. It’s “smart” writing, intelligent and thoughtful as it is pretty to read. I was continually impressed with her way of describing certain small moments with unusual clarity.
This book isn’t one of those deep books that wrings your heart out, and it’s not the type of book to make you laugh until your sides split either. At heart it’s a fun, Christmas love story with some touching moments and characters you can’t help but like. Lyrical writing and clever details make it seem far less ordinary. I would heartily recommend this book to any Regency fan, especially those who enjoy stories with a holiday theme.