I’ve enjoyed the previous two novels in this series (which I’ve listened to rather than read), but I think this might be my favourite of the series so far. It’s one of those books I found hard to put down and couldn’t help gobbling up, no matter how much I wanted to read it slowly so it didn’t come to an end!
Leonie is the youngest of the three Noirot sisters, and in the absence of Marcelline (who is unwell due to her being in a delicate condition) and Sophy (who is on an extended wedding trip) is currently single-handedly managing not only Maison Noirot, but also the charity for girls and young women they founded some years previously. She feels her sisters’ absence keenly, but, being the sensible, level-headed and most business-minded of the trio, is determined to keep everything running smoothly.
She has a plan to further enhance the shop’s reputation. The young ladies of the ton have recently become entranced by the rather overly-sentimental poetry penned by the dreamily handsome Viscount Swanton. Having become aware that Swanton has plans to visit the British Institution, and knowing that wherever he goes, a large crowd of young ladies is sure to follow, Leonie attends the exhibition wearing one of Maison Noirot’s latest creations, intending to “… make the shop’s work known to those unfamiliar with it” and hopes to drum up some custom.
Also fortuitously present is Lady Gladys Fairfax, cousin of Lady Clara, the shop’s best customer. The lady has a reputation for being ill-mannered, ungainly and badly dressed, but Leonie sees in her a golden opportunity. If she can help Lady Gladys to attract the right sort of attention, it will bring even more prestige to Maison Noirot.
While waiting for the appearance of the poet and his entourage of damsels, Leonie finds herself entranced by one particular painting – Venus and Mars by Botticelli. She spends some considerable time taking it in until she’s brought back to earth by an unfamiliar voice belonging to the handsomest man she’s ever seen. He is Simon Blair, Marquess of Lisburne, cousin to Lady Gladys, owner of the Botticelli – and an immediate danger to Leonie’s peace of mind.
Lisburne has lived on the continent for the past five or six years, and has only returned to England in order to see to some family business. Swanton is his cousin, and the two men are as close as brothers. Swanton’s fame, good-looks, and poetic sensibilities have already made him the catch of the season, and Lisburne is determined to protect him from the matchmaking mamas and the ladies who are already throwing themselves at him and swooning at his feet.
He doesn’t intend to stay for more than a couple of weeks – but his meeting with Leonie changes that. He is fascinated by Miss Noirot’s directness and the way she responds to his gentle flirtation, and when he discerns her scheme to turn Gladys from an antidote into the most popular young lady of the ton, he hits upon a way to further his own cause and offers a wager. If Leonie succeeds in making Gladys the toast of the ton, she wins the Botticelli painting. If she loses, she will spend a fortnight with him and give him her complete and undivided attention. It’s a big gamble for him as the painting is one of his most treasured possessions, but he’s convinced that he knows Gladys well enough to feel fairly secure that his prize is all but in the bag.
As the couple spends more time together, they begin to develop a deeper understanding of each other, with Simon, especially, coming to realise how important the business is to Leonie and to see that her life has not been an easy one. So when a completely unexpected accusation levelled at Swanton threatens not only his own standing, but that of Maison Noirot by association, it’s only natural that Simon would want to help Leonie to protect her life’s work.
In case it’s not already obvious, I loved Vixen in Velvet. The plot itself might be slight in terms of ‘action’, but when the dialogue is this good, and the characters are this engaging and wonderfully rounded out, too much of anything else would be superfluous.
Leonie is a genius with numbers, logical, practical, well-organised, and single-minded in her pursuit of success; but being the only sister left at Maison Noirot, there’s the sense that she’s in danger of being consumed by it. She frequently says things like – “I’ve been busy”, or “I didn’t have time” – when questioned as to what else she has in her life besides the shop, but when Simon whisks her off to spend a couple of hours at the circus, or gives her an unexpected driving lesson, Ms. Chase brilliantly shows us a glimpse of the gleeful, child-woman beneath the tough exterior she has to maintain in her daily life. She’s never been in love, or been seriously attracted to a man – she can’t afford that type of distraction. Yet Lisburne makes her knees weak and turns her brain to mush, no matter how often she tries to tell herself that she has no room in her life for emotional entanglements. Lisburne is the perfect match for Leonie – and in more ways than one, as we discover at the end of the book. He’s devastatingly handsome of course, and in possession of enough charisma to power a small principality. But he’s a bit of an enigma and tries hard to keep it that way, wary of giving away too much of and about himself. His shrewdness is a perfect fit with Leonie’s, and while he sometimes presents himself as just another stupid member of the over-privileged upper-class, he’s more than up to Leonie’s weight intellectually, keeping up with – and even, on occasion, getting one step ahead of – her.
It’s also clear that he’s a man for whom family is very important, which is definitely an advantage when it comes to his understanding of Leonie. There are a few references to his relationship with his late father – which was obviously a close and loving one, in contrast to so many romantic heroes whose fathers either detest or ignore them – and his concern for his cousin, while perhaps being a little over-protective, is nonetheless rooted in genuine affection.
Among the things I most like about Lisburne are his capacity for both self-deprecation:
”Maybe you’re so used to girls falling in love with you that you don’t even notice anymore.”
“Well, actually, I forgot what it was like, because they all started falling in love with Swanton.”
And flirtatious immodesty:
”Am I seducing you?… I hadn’t realised I’d got to that part yet. How amazingly clever I am.”
I believe Vixen in Velvet was originally going to be the final book in this series, but it seems that Ms. Chase is now working on a fourth book, which will feature Lady Clara as the heroine. I have to say that I’m delighted, as I’ve loved spending time with the Noirot sisters and their beaux, and becoming immersed in their world. Ms. Chase’s descriptions of the dresses and fabrics are meticulous and quite fascinating, and she so cleverly writes them differently from the womens’ and men’s points of view. There is also a rather sweet secondary romance, and the author does an excellent job in getting under Gladys’ skin and exploring just why she’s so snippy and stand-offish. Leonie’s insight and sensitivity are very impressive; she never sugar coats her words, telling Gladys the truth and helping her to make the best of herself physically, which in turn helps Gladys to make the best of herself as a person. As Leonie tells Simon: “I’ve dressed her … The rest she’s done for herself.”
But above all, it’s the interactions between the hero and heroine that make this book such a delight. I was utterly captivated by the brilliance of the dialogue, which is witty and frequently displays a depth of feeling and insight that is rarely found in the genre.
As one would expect of such an experienced author, the writing is elegant and intelligent and the pacing of the story is perfect. The romance is beautifully developed, proceeding at a natural pace, and the love scenes are sensual and imbued with warmth and tenderness. All the different elements of the story are pulled skilfully together to reach a highly satisfying conclusion, making this one of the most wonderfully entertaining books I’ve read this year.
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