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Maggie Boyd
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Lavender – distrust. Read a book with a big misunderstanding. She Walks in Beauty _ Siri Mitchell

At 17, motherless Clara Carter is looking forward to her last year before having to debut. Her beloved governess has indulged her desires to learn math, science, art and literature and is only now slowly introducing the social graces Clara will need when she is launched into society. When Franklin de Vries is called home early from Europe in mild disgrace from some shenanigans there, Clara’s quiet life is brought to an abrupt halt. Her aunt fires her governess and announces that instead of debuting next season, she is to debut this season. Clara receives a very hit or miss crash course on everything from marrow shovels (ick!) to the abominable corset. All of this because it is imperative that she land Franklin, who is heir to the de Vries fortune.

But this will be no easy task. Not only is Clara socially awkward due to her complete lack of training in any of the societal graces, her best friend Lizzie is also being groomed for an early debut in the hopes that she will catch the de Vries heir. While the two girls pledge not to let a man come between them, it is clear their can be only one winner in this contest. Clara would love to simply let Lizzie have him but her aunt and father are quite determined the she not only snare his attention but get him to propose.

To that end, her aunt forces her to wear a corset which narrows Clara’s 21 inch waist to 18 inches and to give up her friendship with Lizzie. Lizzie, being an enterprising gal, works around that but Clara, ever dutiful, finds no way around the torture device destroying her digestion. As the book progresses, the tight corset robs of her of sleep, of air, and eventually even of food since her shrunken stomach can’t digest anything heavier than soup.

The author tries to present Clara as a smart girl but I never really bought into that. Beyond the fact that she can regurgitate the information she learned, I never see her apply her intellect to anything at all. Unlike Lizzie, who is forever coming up with schemes for how they can meet, Clara is a perfect pawn for her aunt and father, who plan to use her as a tool for their vengeance. It seems the de Vries family bank mismanaged their fortune during the crash and the father had to work as a doctor to rebuild his kingdom. Only Clara marrying the heir and securing the de Vries fortune will restore their honor, and no thought is given to how Clara herself feels about this.

Ms. Mitchell’s work is always rich in historical detail and this novel is no exception. From lemon forks to at-home days, no detail of life in New York’s Gilded Age is left un-examined. While I thoroughly enjoyed this rich look at history, I felt that the author’s time would have been better spent in developing her characters and tightening her plot. I had a lot of questions regarding Clara’s father and their finances which went, in my mind, un-answered. I was also disappointed in how little ingenuity or gumption Clara showed. Smart people rarely make good stool pigeons and yet that was exactly what Clara was for most of the novel. Like Harry, the man she winds up falling for, there is a certain sweetness to her character and a general sort of morality but that’s really all she has going for her. For much of the book, she was such a patsy for others that I couldn’t see her as either independent or intelligent. The scene where she blindly agrees to spread a rumor at Lizzie’s behest was a good example of this to me. Towards the end,in literally the last 50 pages, she begins to develop into her own person but it was too little too late for me. Also, I struggled to believe it given the depths to which she had allowed herself to be controlled previously.

If the hero and heroine were reduced to their sweetness (although Harry displays some cleverness) the villains really suffer from being reduced to caricature. The aunt and father are slightly nuanced but Franklin de Vries was reduced to an ambiguous womanizer. He couldn’t even put any effort into his seductions! Also, the horror of some of the things the aunt and father did seem quickly glossed over to me. I would have liked to explore that area a bit more.

In the end, the book was good but not great. I wish the author had spent more time on her story and less time at her rage against the celebrity lifestyle and the things women do for beauty. In the end what i like most about this book was getting off my TBR.

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