Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bon-bons and Idiots

Cursed with a sweet tooth, I am. Not one of those harmless little “oh, I’ll just have a miniature cupcake once a month and be perfectly happy with nothing but health food the other 29 or so days” things, either; this is more of a full-blown, “must-have-something-sweet-every-single-day-OR-ELSE”-kind of thing. (Fortunately, I love fruit. Unfortunately, fruit doesn’t cut it when I want a sundae. Or a cookie. Or that cupcake.) Still, one does what one must. Makes allowances. Fits the occasional sinfully-decadent whatever into the overall dietary plan (and hopes the combination of guilt and sugar buzz doesn’t prove lethal).
Although there’s a case to be made for the similarities between desserts and Romance novels, I have a very different relationship with the books than with sweets, because of suffering no ill effects from their absence. Not that I out-and-out sniff with disdain at love stories or anything--and not that plenty of non-romance books (meaning, the majority of what constitutes my library) don’t have at least some romantic element, because nearly everything does. It’s just that you just won’t find me trolling the romance aisles at my local Borders... the way you might find me gazing wistfully at a luscious Key lime pie in the bakery case. 
Honest-to-goodness romances do, however, occasionally find their way into my not-so-grubby little paws--especially historical ones, which for some reason seem much more acceptable. (Do I talk myself into believing they’re actually pseudo-educational, by dint of being set in the past? Hmm...) Anyway, on those rare occasions, there’s always the hope that I’ll feel nearly as satisfied as if I’d just devoured one of those so-bad-for-me-it-could-only-be-good, sugar-laden confections. (The very definition of a guilty pleasure, you see, and hence, a comparison one might conceivably make.)
Recently a fellow blogger (and you know who you are, you naughty little minx!) recommended something that sounded too irresistible to pass up--Sherry Thomas’s His at Night. (Let me take a moment to emphasize that I would never have picked this one up from a center-aisle display at the bookstore, not even if I tripped over it. First, the cover art. Gah!! Shield my eyes!! Second, the title. Ugh. Romance-kitsch, anyone?) But, this hilarious and über-talented person seems to like a lot of the same things as me, so giving it a shot was an acceptable risk to take. (And, in a fortuitous sign from destiny, it was available for Kindle... which meant no walking around trying to hide that cringe-worthy cover art from the raised eyebrows and giggles of anyone nosy enough to try to see what I was reading. Perfect!)
It’s certainly true that the bare-bones plot of His at Night is straight out of Historical Romance Books 101: beautiful young woman and handsome, heroic man meet, only to find that they must get married at once for some super-important reason (like, to avert impending doom or loss of a fortune or incarceration or... etc.). But, it’s how Thomas fills out those bones that makes this book such a thoroughly-delectable cream puff of a story.
The Marquess of Vere is typical of the landed gentry of a certain age; a handsome, debonair, and well-educated young man whose presence is in high demand at all gatherings of anyone who is (or wants to be) someone. Unfortunately, he is also something of an idiot... or at least that’s what he has everyone believe. Vere, you see, isn’t a man content to merely rest on the laurels of his birth, living a life of indolence. (He also has reasons for not wishing to pursue a political career, and apparently, given his family connections, those are the only two “acceptable” paths for him to take.) Instead, he has chosen to be part of a secret and elite little group of spies, affluent and important people like himself, who live for the thrill of solving mysteries and righting wrongs. The “idiot” persona which he has adopted allows him to say all sorts of outrageous things and to hear all manner of secrets, with no one any the wiser to his ruse.   
Meanwhile, beautiful Elissande Edgerton is virtually being held captive at a country estate, along with her ailing aunt, by her urbane but sadistic uncle, diamond mogul Edmund Douglas. Elissande dreams of escape, but knows it to be an impossible dream, since she refuses to leave Aunt Rachel behind in the hands of such a cruel monster. Given that, she has resigned herself to an unhappy fate of loneliness and fear.
As fate would have it, though, Lord Vere’s partner-in-crime-solving--Lady Kingsley--has just taken on a case revolving around the investigation of a certain shady diamond dealer--a Mr. Edmund Douglas, to be precise. Time is of the essence; it is believed Douglas has incriminating papers somewhere in his house, which must be acted upon with haste. A plan is thus concocted to get the spies onto the Douglas estate and in the house while Douglas is away on business--a plan involving a rather large (and shockingly sudden!) rat infestation, a bevy of lovely young ladies, and a host of willing but not-terribly-effective young men, all of whom shortly descend on Highgate Court, the Douglas manse. (Well, all exact the rats. Those remain in residence at Lady Kingsley’s ill-fated home.)
The comely Elissande is nothing if not an opportunist (which is not such a bad thing to be when one has lived under the iron rule of a monster like Uncle Edward for one’s entire life). She hatches a plan of her own, to make one of the gents among her houseguests fall in love with her and want to marry (riding in on a white horse and rescuing her and Aunt Rachel from the clutches of evil, in other words). Her plan seems even better once she sets her gaze on Vere, for he is truly an awesome specimen of manflesh. Until he speaks, at any rate, which is when she quickly changes her mind and conspires instead to entrap his younger brother, Freddie (not quite as good a catch, monetarily speaking, but also not an idiot). Plans go awry, though--as they naturally have a way of doing--and Elissande and Vere do, indeed, find themselves unwittingly headed for the altar. Together.
Things could be worse. Vere has a lovely townhouse in London, and Elissande and Aunt Rachel are quickly installed there. Vere and Lady Kingsley continue their investigation into Douglas, aided by a few suspicious items they managed to pilfer from Highgate Court during their brief sojourn within. And Elissande, ever leery of Uncle Edward somehow managing to spoil all her planning, sets out to make her marriage a “real” one (meaning, with verifiable proof that an annulment would no longer be a viable option). 
Will they or won’t they see through each other’s secrets and lies, subterfuges and guises, to the wounded souls hiding inside? Will Douglas be caught and put away for good, leaving the women he’s abused for so long free at last? Does anyone (or everyone) find happiness, true love, and eternal bliss? You can guess the answers, I’m sure. (This is a Romance; thus, it will have a happy ending.)
The real pleasure, of course, is in the getting there, in watching the complex and sexy tango in which Vere and Elissande engage. There are delicious conversational gambits, and delightfully flirty exhanges, and mouthwateringly-yummy scenes of seduction. It’s a harmless bit of pure, unadulterated pleasure, an excuse to lock yourself away alone somewhere to revel in a Victorian fantasy, undisturbed by 21st-century distractions.    
You just never know what’s inside anything, do you... until you take a peek in there and see what’s what. Maybe it’s that yucky, fake-cherry filling (instead of the creamy pecan-praline you were really hoping for) hiding within. But maybe, if you’re lucky, it’s a really fun and engrossing story, hiding behind some cliched, swoon-y cover art. 

Take my word for it; it’s worth finding out. :)
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.5 out of 5 mousies

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