To Love a Thief
I enjoyed Julie Anne Long’s debut novel The Runaway Duke, though I felt it sagged a bit in the last third. I was looking forward to reading her second novel, and while I felt it also had some problems toward the end, I liked To Love a Thief, a Regency-era Pygmalion story, even more.
Gideon Cole is a man with a Master Plan. A man of fairly modest beginnings, he earned a reputation as a winning barrister in court and finds himself on the short list of candidates for a post in the Exchequer. It helps that his uncle has unexpectedly succeeded to a barony and that Gideon is his heir. He acknowledges that he is aiming very high indeed by courting the daughter of a politically influential marquis, but he has an “in” – Lady Constance covets being mistress of Aster Park, Gideon’s future estate and one of England’s grandest properties. Though it may not be enough – there are other suitors sniffing at Lady Constance’s heels. Gideon decides that what she needs is a healthy dose of competition, for she hates to lose. What Gideon needs is another woman to be interested in him to spur Lady Constance’s resolve to have Aster Park. I mean, Gideon.
Enter Lily Masters. Her family wound up in St. Giles’s slums when her ne’er-do-well father lost what little money they had. Mrs. Masters, the daughter of a curate, did her best to instill gentility in her own daughters, teaching them to read and write and speak correctly. Now, with both parents deceased, Lily has resorted to picking pockets as the best way to have money and be to available to care for her ten year old sister, Alice. When Lily is caught picking a pocket, Gideon is on hand to save her, impulsively paying his last £30 to keep her out of prison and insert her into his Master Plan.
Gideon quickly sees that the beautiful Lily has the raw material to set the ton on its ear and send Lady Constance into a frenzy. He takes her and Alice, along with his friend Colonel Pickering, I mean Lord Kilmartin, to Aster Park to teach her the finer points of the social world with the plan to then pass her off as Kilmartin’s distant cousin.
Gideon was a fun guy before he developed his Master Plan. He knows this is a wild scheme, likely to blow up in his face, but a part of him relishes the sheer recklessness of it. How much fun would it be to pull one over on the ton? And while he is a driven man, he is also a kind one. He could be making much more money as a barrister, but he is forever being talked into taking on the hardship cases of widows and orphans.
Lily is pretty tough – she’s had to be – and though she is wary of the Master Plan, she acknowledges her debt to Gideon. She is wonderful with her sister, and though she is glad of the opportunity to give Alice a respite from the constant hardships of life, she also finds herself almost angry at the sheer luxury of Aster Park. The scene where the girls take baths upon arriving – Alice’s first – is very touching, with Lily simultaneously enjoying the comfort and fearing it.
But while there are poignant moments in the novel, the overall feeling is humorous. There are lots of gently funny scenes, as in this early one where Mr. Dodge, a solicitor, is trying to convince the perpetually broke Gideon to take on yet another charity case:
“Has she any money?” Gideon asked despairingly. “Any chance I might earn more than a shilling from this?”
Mr. Dodge beamed at him. “None whatsoever.”
“I hate you, Mr. Dodge.”
“I know, Mr. Cole,” Dodge said cheerfully. “You will take the case?”
Okay, so what didn’t I like about the book? Well, I know this may sound picky to some, but it’s one of those things, that if it bothers you, it really bothers you: incorrect titles. Lady Constance Clary is called “Lady Clary” throughout the novel, when “Lady Clary” is her mother’s title, hers being simply “Lady Constance.” This irritates title-snobs like me because it’s something that is so easy to check and get right and just smacks of laziness when it’s done wrong.
But more importantly, there are a couple of inevitable and clichéd plot developments that rear their ugly heads close to the end. You can see them coming a mile away – I’m sure that just knowing that Lily is a pickpocket and that this is a Pygmalion story that you can predict what they are, and the stupid moves Gideon will make. I had hopes that Long might be able avoid them, but she couldn’t. However, I was comforted by the fact that she seemed to acknowledge the disappointment as well when she has Lily muse: .”‘Ah,’ she thought bitterly, ‘I am learning so much about love.’ Specifically, she had just learned it was entirely possible to love a complete idiot.”
Yeah. Fun, pathos, great dialogue, interesting characters, some disappointments – that’s love. And that’s also a good book.