This should have been my favorite summer read. Good girls and rakes are my favorite thing and Victoria Alexander’s The Lady Travelers Guide to Happily Ever After promised precisely that. I was entirely prepared to be delighted and happily rave about my new favorite read. Instead, I found myself more frustrated than I can recall being in a long time (at least about a book!).
James and Violet Branham, Lord and Lady Ellsworth, got married six years earlier and haven’t been together since. James kissed Violet on the eve of his engagement to her friend, neatly extricating himself from an unwanted marriage, but ending up in another because he was then faced with the choice to leave Violet to metaphorically die of shame in good society or marry her. He had no interest in fulfilling his marital duties (though he didn’t object to the conjugal one) and so Violet, heartbroken, insisted she wanted a legal marriage only. She packed her bags and went off to travel the world, while James stayed to wallow in aristocratic excess.
Six years on, James’s uncle has died and left him his title and inheritance – except the inheritance is contingent upon James and Violet living together in holy matrimony in the same location for nearly three years and generally acting as if they are dwelling in wedded contentment if not wedded bliss. To ensure all this is properly executed, James’ uncle has appointed an old lady friend of his (one he secretly loved all his life) to make sure they are acting as they should.
A major problem of The Lady Travelers Guide to Happily Ever After is that a book’s worth of emotional growth happens between the prologue and chapter one, and all the subsequent chapters see Violet and James stalled out in the last phase of their emotional arcs. Their inner monologues constantly circle around the same thoughts. Any reader could get confused and lose their place in the book because it seems every other page Violet and James think the same things. My note about their PoVs boiled down to this: Him: I hurt her, I love her, I want her, I’ll fight for her. Her: I’m hurt, I’m grateful to him for letting me see the world, I’m not who I was before. And you could make a drinking game out of all the times James’ “terrible decisions and dreadful mistakes” are referenced (I counted the precise number of times that exact phrase is used: twelve). James did cheat on Violet – evidently multiple times with many women – but Ms. Alexander somehow makes it a near non-issue. Mainly, I think she succeeds in neutralizing the problem by never giving details about the adultery; this isn’t The Day of the Duchess in which the reader knows Who, What, Where, When, and How. And because Violet made the choice to not act married to James by never seeing him, it somehow felt understandable that he didn’t act married to Violet.
Another problem is this book is not very romantic. If you give me a story with a married couple who secretly like each other and a forced proximity scenario, I expect it to be a cornucopia of brushes on the hand, touches on the knee, and all those other lovely little moments of suppressed chemistry. A cornucopia this is not. I think Ms. Alexander took the guide part of the title a little too seriously, because Violet just spends a lot of time dragging James around and showing him her life and her world in scenes that are rote and uninspired.
There are numerous secondary characters – the old lady responsible for supervising Violet and James is aided by a bevy of lady-friends, and I found them indistinguishable but sweet, like the fairy godmothers in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. James and Violet each have a best friend who has a secondary romance. His friend, Marcus, was all right, but I loathed Violet’s friend, Cleo. She objected to James on principle, which I realize is supposed to make her a good girlfriend, but I just found her annoying.
I’ve often heard literature described as something that is transporting, which allows readers to experience other lives and places. The Lady Travelers Guide to Happily Ever After fails to do any of that. Even though the story is set in London, Paris, Florence, and Athens, it feels about as unique and exciting as the waiting area in a regional airport. If a good travel romance is what you need, take a route away from this book and head in the direction of something like E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View – it may be 111 years old, but it’s still a much better destination.
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So happy to hear you enjoyed it too!