The Fairest of Them All
Lady Charlene Blanchard, born to minor nobility and poverty alike, is socially and financially down at the heel due to her father’s poor choices. The orphaned Char has become an adroit pickpocket to support herself at the suggestion of her former-actress-and-thief-godmother, Lady Baldwin, after Char was cut off financially by her loathsome uncle. She now lives with her aunt, Sarah, also an ex-actress, who dreams of becoming a playwright and is ignorant of where the rent money is coming from. In spite of the danger Char feels as though she’s found a strength and purpose in life in the sordid trade – that she’s ‘slaying her own dragons’ just as her father encouraged her to do years ago and is getting a form of revenge on the world that bankrupted him.
A way out of her dodgy lifestyle is provided by an invitation to a ball hosted by Gavin Whitridge, the Duke of Baynton. Whitridge is searching for a bride after his previous fiancée dumped him and married his younger brother Ben (in The Match of the Century). Char’s bloodline and beauty mean that she’s ideal “breeding stock”, in the words of Gavin’s aunt, and once he sees her he is smitten. Now all Char and Sarah must do is simply play the part of a true lady and her loyal maid to convince him to take Char on. Unfortunately, there’s one big snag in the way of the plan’s success, and that snag is Gavin’s twin brother Jack.
Jack nearly caught Char in the act when she picked the pocket of one of his friends a few weeks earlier. She barely escaped with the wallet after a tussle and chase, and even so, both are intrigued. Jack has a lot on his plate; a lawyer working for the American government who is trying to prevent the country from going to war with Britain, he needs to ingratiate himself with the family he abandoned when he was fifteen in order to make good social connections. It’s a difficult task, as Jack ran away knowing that Gavin was the favored son of their horrible father, leaving his whole family to presume him dead. While trying to mend this fractured relationship, he starts tracking Char to make sure she’s truly the bride of his brother’s dreams.
When circumstances force Jack and Char to spend time together, he learns about her money troubles and the fact that they’ve left her in hock to the Seven, a gang of young hooligans who are blackmailing her into working for them because she owes their leader money after stealing on their patch. As Jack’s feelings for Char intensify, Gavin soon figures out the truth, forcing a confrontation.
There’s something uniquely appealing about The Fairest of Them All. Part romantic farce, part family drama, part political adventure, the story is at heart a typical heroine-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks-comes-between-warring-brothers story, yet these characters are the most refreshingly atypical bunch I’ve read in awhile.
Layered is a good way to describe this group of antagonists and protagonists. Char is both a survivor who isn’t afraid to hide her scars, but who really wants a knight to slay those metaphorical dragons she keeps trying to tilt at. She will not sit happily by and wait for love to come to her and refuses to let fate manipulate her.
Jack is, ironically, a Jack-of-All-Trades; sailor, farmer and statesman. He occasionally comes off as one of those beep-boop-what-is-human-feelings? kind of heroes, but nevertheless he actually does love his occasionally difficult brood and wants his adopted country and England not to fight each other. And he loves America. Like, more than a friend. I actually believed he loved his country more than he loved the heroine. The passages about his relationship with Gavin and Ben provide some of the books’ best moments. Yet it’s hard to get over the fact that he thought letting his beloved mother and brothers suffer because he was jealous of Gavin and angry at his (admittedly awful) dad. His reason for not contacting Ben? Why, the boy was too young when he left home, so he doubted Ben would miss him. Logic is not Jack’s friend.
The secondary characters are good too. Particularly sympathetic is Lady Baldwin, whose only daughter sees her as a clownish embarrassment, and who has attached herself to Char because she thinks bringing the girl out into society will finally earn her some real respect from her family. Sarah, too, is somewhat pathetically endearing. And ultimately I really wanted to read Gavin’s book; the poor boy deserves a happy ending at this point, and his desire to have Char actually fall in love with him is sweet. That sweetness is often complicated by his cool and anti-romantic attitude, but still – the guy seems like slightly less of a dick than his brother.
There are, unfortunately, a few dull stretches. A lot of time is spent on Jack’s political machinations (if you’re looking to read a couple hundred thousand words of bloviation on patriotism, Jack is your guy), and none of those machinations are especially interesting unless you’re curious about the War of 1812. And then, sadly, comes the romance. After over a hundred pages of plot contrivance, the hero and heroine finally manage to meet in a non-combative way and the connection… is actually sort of dull. They immediately like and understand each other, so outside forces and Big Misunderstandings must provide the majority of the friction. Let me be frank: the author makes it so clear that Char is not romantically interested in Gavin that her later attempt at some sort of triangle flops flat on its face, yet she does not devote enough time to the Jack/Char romance as to make it believable. The two of them only share a grand total of six scenes together in the entire book before the HEA arrives! Sure, he slays her metaphorical dragon and she does the same for him, but they’ve barely spoken ten words to each other on-page in between.
The book concludes with a strange dollop of bittersweetness. We get our HEA, but there’s much larger conflict on the horizon that could well affect both Jack’s career and Char’s life, all of which is left to dangle. The Fairest of Them All is such a mixed bag of good and bad that one is left both infuriated that there’s no full conclusion and relived that the correct party is together and safe. But the reader’s interest in proceeding to the next book, much like Char’s ultimate fate, might just end up dangling eternally in mid-air.