May 25 2010
Here is another new summer reviewer, Sunita, and her take on Sherry Thomas’ release, His at Night.
Dear Ms. Thomas,
When romance novel readers bring up their favorite books, yours are among the first and most frequently cited as exemplary works in current historical romance. Your prose is lyrical and distinctive, your characters are unusual, and I find that your voice has grown increasingly assured with each book. But while I have admired the two previous novels I read (Delicious is still in my TBR), I haven't really loved them. I could see the skill and quality in every page, but I felt distanced from the story and the characters; minor errors jumped out at me, which is a sure sign that I'm not wholly engaged. So I approached His at Night with a bit of trepidation. That trepidation turned out to be entirely misplaced.
You begin your novel by introducing us to your hero. The Marquess of Vere, an undercover agent for the Crown, is investigating Edmund Douglas, a wealthy diamond mine owner who is suspected of extortion. Vere and his confederates take advantage of Douglas’s brief absence from his estate to seek shelter there from a plague of rats which has been set loose in the house they have rented in the vicinity. Douglas’s young and lovely niece, Elissande Edgerton, is somewhat reluctant to invite them to stay, but she acquiesces.
When they first meet, Vere and Elissande are instantly attracted to each other. But Elissande quickly discovers what the Upper Ten Thousand already knows, i.e., by all appearances, Vere is a complete idiot. And Vere in turn realizes that Elissande is using the visit to entrap one of the eligible men of the party into marriage. When Elissande sets her sights on Vere’s brother Freddie, Vere moves to thwart her, only to be caught himself. At the end of their short stay, Vere has gained valuable evidence against Douglas, but he is forced to marry Elissande after being found with her in a highly compromising position.
By the time they journey to London to be married, Vere has realized that Elissande did not entrap him out of ambition but out of desperation and fear, and when they return to the estate to inform Douglas of their marriage, it becomes even clearer to him why she acted as she did. Nevertheless, he is furious at the outcome and in her presence he increasingly behaves less like the idiot the world and his brother believe him to be and more like the brilliant, unhappy, angry man that he really is. Elissande, in turn realizes that Vere wears as much of a mask as she does, and as she comes to know the man behind the mask she blames herself for her deception, which saved her and her aunt from their uncle at the cost of Vere’s freedom.
I don’t want to give away too many spoilers for a suspense plot which is integral both to the storyline and to the relationship between Vere and Elissande. As opposed to novels in which the spy subplot appears to be grafted onto a predictable romantic narrative arc in order to pad out the page length, the mystery in this book is crucial to developing the romance between the hero and the heroine. Vere and Elissande meet and then make decisions which shape their future together because of it, and they learn a great deal about themselves and each other as the mystery is unraveled. Douglas is a superb villain. You expertly convey how terrifying he is without taking him over the top, and the moments of sudden violence administered a real shock as I was reading.
In addition to the principal romance and the mystery, there is a secondary romance that should appeal to readers of Private Arrangements. Vere’s brother Freddie realizes that he has fallen in love with his recently widowed childhood friend, Angelica, but he has no idea whether she loves him and how to find out without jeopardizing their friendship. Their scenes are funny and quite sweet, and they provide a break from the intensity of the scenes between Vere and Elissande, as well as from the villainy of Douglas.
I said at the beginning of this review that I sometimes felt distanced from your heroes and heroines, even when I appreciated them. For me there was no such distance in this book. From the first time we meet Vere and Elissande, we understand how complex their interior lives are. The first few sentences of the book describe the gap between Vere’s appearance and reality:
The Marquess of Vere was a man of few words.
This fact, however, would astonish all but a select few of his numerous friends and acquaintances. The general consensus was that Lord Vere talked. And talked. And talked.
Similarly, the first scene with Elissande, when she is seeing off her uncle, signals the gap between her public and private selves and why it is so important:
Still smiling, she leaned in to kiss him on his cheek, controlling her aversion with an expertise that made her throat tighten.
He required this demonstration of familial warmth before the servants. It was not every man who disguised his evil so well that he fooled his own staff. One heard rumors of Squire Lewis's bum pinching, or Mrs. Stevenson's watering of the beer she provided her servants. But the only sentiment circulated about Mr. Douglas was a uniform admiration for his saintly patience, what with Mrs. Douglas being so frail-’and not altogether right upstairs.
At last he climbed into his carriage. The coachman, hunkered down in his mackintosh, flicked the reins. The wheels scraped wetly against the gravel drive. Elissande waved until the brougham rounded the curve; then she lowered her arm and dropped her smile.
There are other characteristics that emphasize what Vere and Elissande share, such as your choices for their escape fantasies. Vere imagines the perfect companion with a dazzlingly happy smile who takes on whatever role he needs at the time. Elissande seeks comfort from reality by reading from one of the few books she has managed to hide from her uncle, a travelogue of the Island of Capri. When they meet, each sees in the other the embodiment of their sun-filled, happy fantasies, which makes their subsequent disappointments that much more intense. But the fantasies also point to the way in which they will eventually achieve that happiness in reality. Vere and Elissande are damaged in similar ways, but their HEA is not the union of two damaged people. Rather, I believe in it because in spite of that damage, they have managed to remain people who are strong enough to embrace life and to create and share happiness with those they love.
I cannot end a review of a book by Sherry Thomas without talking about your prose. I have not always been swept up by it the way other readers have; I tend to like understated prose styles, and sometimes I found myself admiring your prose as something independent of the story, which diminishes my engagement. But this time I found that the beauty of your writing enhanced the story rather than competing with it. Sometimes it was just a sentence, at other times it was a series of scenes. The scenes of Vere and Elissande on their wedding night, and the scene where she is reciting excerpts from the travelogue to him, were all beautiful and almost heartbreaking in their poignancy. Their first conversation at dinner at Highgate Manor, and then her attempt to mimic his malapropisms during dinner after they were married both made me feel as if I were in the room.
I also liked the way that you integrated the historical context into the story, particularly the railways. Both Vere’s ability to sleep on trains (in contrast to his tendency to have nightmares everywhere else) and the way in which everyone hopped on trains to go from place to place, emphasized that this was a story set at the end of the 19th century, not the beginning.
I have one criticism about the context, and this is something I’ve found to be the case not just in your novels but more generally in historical romances. While I was too caught up in the story to catch possible historical anachronisms, I did notice that these characters were unmoored from other people. What I mean by this is that the geography and the technology of the time felt authentic, but the lack of a dense social network stood out. As a Marquess, Vere never seemed to concern himself with his estate or with an extended family. Even if he was apparently too stupid to run it, no one else seemed to be managing his vast wealth. I’m not talking about sequel bait characters, but rather the kind of world that, for example, Jo Beverley creates, or Georgette Heyer did. When I read historical accounts of the British upper classes of this time, one of the striking features is how intermarried and interconnected they are. People exist as members of families and kin networks more than as atomized individuals. I understand why Elissande’s family is isolated. But Vere and Freddie’s isolation makes less sense to me, especially since one of their initial attractions for Elissande is the power and wealth that their social position brings them.
Nevertheless, this is a minor point that didn’t detract much from my immense pleasure in reading your book. We readers of romance go through a lot of books. A few are wallbangers, more are okay but not great, even more are enjoyable, and some are more than that. When I’m reading a book that falls into that fourth and smallest category, I find myself saying “OMG, I can’t believe how good this is” with one part of my brain while the rest of it is saying “shut up and keep reading.” His At Night made me feel that way, and I thank you for that. Needless to say, this is an A read for me.
This is a mass market from Random House.