The title of your latest book calls to mind something illicit, if not downright salacious. The reality was a bit tamer, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Lady Xenobia India St. Clair was given an unconventional upbringing by two nobly-born but free-spirited parents. Since she was left without a dowry when they died, India went into a profession of sorts, as an expert in interior decorating/temporary life management for her godmother’s aristocratic friends. It’s in this capacity that she meets Tobias “Thorn” Dautry, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers.
Thorn had a rough start in life; his father apparently made arrangements to have his many illegitimate children cared for, but something went awry and Thorn ended up spending his early childhood as a mudlark, scouring the banks of the Thames for treasures to sell under the direction of a cruel and violent master. Eventually, his father the duke relocated the son he misplaced, along with the rest of his bastards, I believe. I think this is all detailed in an earlier book, one I’m not inclined to read. A “hero” who drops by-blows all over the place and then screws up taking care of them isn’t one I’m all that interested in. But anyway, from the age of 11 or 12, Thorn was raised in the ducal home, beloved by his father and stepmother, and sent to school as befits aristocratic offspring. He’s since gone on to become an astute and successful businessman. The one thing Thorn doesn’t have is legitimacy, and while it doesn’t seem to bother him too much, he does intend to use his enormous wealth to find a suitable bride who will bring him, and the children they eventually have, respectability and social standing.
He thinks he’s found a worthy candidate in Laetitia Rainsford, a pretty, noble and sweet-tempered young miss. Sure, she also has a reputation of being dumber than a box of hair, but Thorn doesn’t see that as an impediment to a successful marriage. In his quest to get through Laetitia’s dragon of a mother, who is not happy about having to sell her daughter to a bastard, Thorn arranges to buy a country manse, sight unseen. The seller was a somewhat notorious lord who apparently held orgies and other bacchanalian events in the house. Thorn’s stepmother arranges to have India, with whom she is friendly, whip the property into shape in preparation for a house party at which Thorn hopes to press his suit with Laetitia.This all affords an excellent opportunity, of course, for Thorn and India to be thrown together quite a lot.
India has been thinking about marriage as well. Her childhood was scarcely better than Thorn’s – for all that they were aristocrats, her parents were cash-poor, eccentric and given to dancing naked in the moonlight. She often went hungry as a child, since they were apparently too poor or bohemian or something to think about actually feeding her. (I would’ve liked a better idea of just what it was that India’s parents were so into that they forgot to feed their child; it’s not really explained that well.) So she’s had a somewhat lonely life, at least until her parents died (want to guess how? I’ll give you three guesses. It rhymes with “carriage accident”) and she went to live with her godmother. India”s aware that her profession puts her somewhat on the edges of the society she rightfully belongs to, and she’d like to find a husband befitting the daughter of a marquess and have a family of her own. She agrees to take on the herculean project of fixing up Thorn’s new estate as sort of a last hurrah, both as a favor to her friend and because she finds it hard to resist a challenge.
It’s not just the project that turns out to be a challenge; India and Thorn clash immediately and repeatedly. I’m not usually a huge fan of characters who fall in love through bickering, unless it’s done really well. It’s actually done pretty well here, so I didn’t mind it, but for one aspect that got progressively more aggravating for me.
Look, I know that “Eloisa James” is not synonymous with “Georgette Heyer.” I expect, if not quite “wallpaper historicals”, books that take liberties with the mores and behaviors of the times. And I’ve long reluctantly accepted that egregious mental lusting is a ubiquitous feature in most historical romances (maybe most romances, period). But the frankness with which Thorn and India (Thorn mostly) talk and joke about sex is not at all realistic to the time period, as I understand it. Hell, even in a contemporary, I’d probably get icked out by all of the juvenile double entendres between an employee and employer. (And it’s not just Thorn; at one point his father the duke makes a risque joke in mixed company. Which I guess would explain where he gets it from, but doesn’t make it feel any less anachronistic or just plain rude.) I really wish all of the verbal foreplay had been toned way down.
I found myself most intrigued by and fond of two ancillary characters. The first was Laetitia Rainsford. She’s NOT stupid, though she believes herself to be. She appears to be dyslexic and a have a related tendency towards being very shy and tongue-tied, but when we get her POV she’s quite a sympathetic character. The other character I loved was Rose, a little girl who is dropped off at Thorn’s after her parents die (her father was an old friend of Thorn’s from his days as a mudlark). Rose is suspected by several characters of being Thorn’s bastard, necessitating her being hid in the dower house during the house party. She’s a preternaturally mature and self-possessed five-year-old. Precocious little kids in fiction can be tricky, but Rose’s grave maturity was very appealing.
India was not a particularly finely drawn character, but she’s fairly appealing and sympathetic. She has some insecurities over her difficult childhood. She doesn’t apologize for her lush figure; as a child who never knew when or where her next meal would come from, she’s too grateful for reliable food to turn it away. But she’s insecure over her mastery of proper grammar, which was a nice little telling detail that softened her sharp edges a bit.
Thorn was a fairly bland and paint-by-numbers hero. There were intriguing aspects to his personality – his interest in business seemed to go a little deeper than that of your average self-made man in historical romance, for one (he’s something of an inventor, apparently). He has some trauma related to the fact that his mother abandoned him and apparently never looked back; she died when he was 12 and so he never knew her. But none of it is given enough time or attention to ever really resonate. I did think his relationship with Rose was sweet; he took to being her surrogate father quickly and convincingly.
The last third of the book involved a lot of running around and teeth gnashing over who loves/doesn’t love who and who is too good/not good enough for who. It was just a bit tiresome, though I have to say that my heartstrings were tugged a tad at the end almost in spite of myself, which is why I’ll bump up my grade from a C+ to a B-.