Feb 16 2011
Dear Ms. James,
I was under the impression that I had previously only read one book by you. A trip down memory lane, via my book log, proved me wrong. (BTW, my log is celebrating its 10th anniversary! Thanks for the memories, Microsoft Excel! I can barely remember what I read yesterday these days, so the log has been a lifesaver.) It turns out I’ve read two of your previous books: in 2003, I read Duchess in Love (grade: B; observation: silly fluff, but fairly entertaining) and in 2005 I read Much Ado About You (grade: C+; observation: readable but forgettable).
I think the second observation must have been accurate, because I remember nothing about Much Ado About You. I actually do remember a bit about Duchess in Love, which is surprising given how long ago I read it. But I think that book is why I haven’t felt too compelled to read your other books (2005 anomaly aside). You see, even though it was a decent book and I gave it a B, it cemented my impression of your books as Not for Me. Not for Me because I like dark and angsty, and you write light and funny – at least that was the impression I had. So I didn’t have high expectations when I opened your latest, When Beauty Tamed the Beast. Jane had sent it to me and I didn’t think I’d hate it, given my previous experience with your work. Plus, I try to remain relevant and useful by not always reviewing books that are more than a century old.
All this build-up is to say: I was surprised by how much I enjoyed When Beauty Tamed the Beast. It was well-written, compelling, and featured appealing characters. No, it wasn’t dark and angsty (though there are serious situations dealt with in the story). I liked it anyway.
So, plot stuff: Linnet Thynne is young, beautiful, and the toast of London. She’s being courted by a prince, a romantic sort who apparently pines after inappropriate women (and Linnet, while a lady, is inappropriate for him, being the mere daughter of a viscount). When the prince abruptly announces her unsuitability for marriage, and then abandons Linnet in the middle of a ball, it causes a scandal. By the next day, Linnet is persona non grata and rumors are flying that she is pregnant with the prince’s child (due to an unfortunately full-skirted ball gown).
Linnet’s father is on the verge of apoplexy; he’s never been exactly the most devoted of parents, and he seems to view this scandal as something between a nuisance and a personal affront to him. Along with Linnet’s aunt (her late mother’s sister), he concocts a scheme to marry Linnet off to the son of the Duke of Windebank, who is known to be desperate to find a spouse for his only child. The rumors of Linnet’s condition will in fact be welcomed by the duke, they think – his son is said to be impotent, and the duke is believed to be obsessed with his noble name being carried on (and presumably, if it can’t be carried on by someone with his own blood, a baby with royal blood isn’t too bad).
Linnet thinks the whole thing is ridiculous, but on the other hand, she is not crazy about hanging around London now that no one calls on her and she receives no invitations. So she shortly finds herself packed off to Wales in the company of the Duke of Windebank, ready to be a bride to a man she imagines is frail and easily manipulated. She knows from the duke that his son Piers, the Earl of Marchant, is a brilliant physician who has little patience with the medical establishment; she’s heard he can be tempermental. But she doesn’t doubt her own ability to use her beauty and charm to make him fall in love with her. Once that happens, Linnet figures she can come clean about the fact that she isn’t pregnant.
Of course, Piers is not what Linnet expects – to say he’s tempermental is at the very least, an understatement. He also hates his father and has no intention of going through with any wedding. His remote estate is mostly given over as a hospital, where he treats patients with a variety of ailments and teaches several young doctors-in-training; he is ably assisted by his charming French cousin, Sebastien, who is himself a gifted surgeon. Piers can be shockingly callous towards his patients; he gives them excellent care but doesn’t hesitate to be brutally honest about the course of their illnesses and chances of survival. Piers himself suffers from a bad leg, the result of a childhood accident, that causes him to walk with a limp and gives him a great deal of pain (he swims everyday to alleviate the pain and strengthen the leg). Some of Piers’ crankiness can no doubt be attributed to his chronic pain; the rest of it just appears to be his natural disposition.
If any of this sounds familiar to fans of a certain FOX medical drama, yes, the Earl of Marchant is modeled on the title character of “House.” I don’t watch the show myself, but know enough about it to discern the similarities. I did like Piers’ characterization – the gruff hero with a heart of gold is a cliche, but it’s an effective one when done well, and it’s done well here. And to be fair, “heart of gold” may be overstating it a bit – Piers becomes a better man and a better doctor partly due to Linnet’s influence, which was another aspect of the plot I liked.
I liked Linnet a lot too – she’s one of those heroines who is very aware of her beauty and her effect on men, and she doesn’t hesitate to use the weapons at her disposal to get what she wants. But she’s not the typical shallow, vain heroine who has to learn an Important Lesson about what really matters in life; Linnet already has a good head on her shoulders and well-developed conscience. She institutes some changes in the care of Piers’ patients, pushing for them to be given more stimulation and interaction with the outside world. Piers is surprised to find that Linnet actually has an interest in his medical practice and treatment theories.
Linnet and Piers bond over this, and Piers teaches Linnet to swim. (Under circumstances that really don’t bear too deep thinking about; the apparent abundance of sunshine along the Welsh coastline, though remarked upon as unusual, is actually one of the more believable aspects of these swimming encounters. More believable, at any rate, than the likelihood that a man and woman of Piers’ and Linnet’s social class during that era would be indulging in near-naked swimming lessons alone on a daily basis. And this is before you even get to the convenient sudden storm that forces them to take shelter in an abandoned gatehouse…)
Honestly, if I think about this book at all deeply, there are a lot of logic holes I could fall into. Linnet’s initial scandal doesn’t make a huge amount of sense – I think maybe she was behaving a bit inappropriately with the prince, and given her late mother’s racy reputation (she indulged in a number of affairs while married to Linnet’s father), and the business about the billowy dress…I guess that could add up to her being shunned. But it’s not really spelled out – Linnet, if anything, seemed to have been a society darling before the prince dumped her, and said dumping would seem to be more likely to engender sympathy rather than scorn. It would make more sense if it was clear that Linnet was courting trouble and acting “fast” before the scandal broke. It’s also sort of fuzzy as to why the rumor about Piers’ supposed impotence exists – again, I can fill in the blanks and imagine that Piers put it out there to torment his father (whose supposed obsession with lineage is mentioned several times and then dropped) with the idea that the line would end with him. I appreciate books that don’t spell everything out, but there’s a difference between not spelling everything out and having characters act in inexplicable ways to forward the plot, and I think I can usually recognize that difference.
On the other hand, I can’t really claim that these inconsistencies bothered me much, because they really didn’t. I just really enjoyed the book. It brought to mind my recent reading of SEP’s Call Me Irresistible. I think of myself as someone who requires a certain amount of verisimilitude in my romance. SEP is my contemporary exception, but I didn’t think I necessarily had any historical exceptions. I was wrong. Or, perhaps, it’s that while the situations in this book are not necessarily realistic, the characterizations are. Good characterization matters much more to me that plot, so ultimately the silliness and plot holes don’t count for that much in my estimation.
My grade for When Beauty Tamed the Beast is A-.