REVIEW: The Famous Heroine by Mary Balogh
Dear Ms. Balogh,
Who knew you could be this funny?
Cora Downes is the titular heroine of this 1996 book, now being rereleased in a 2-in-1 volume with The Plumed Bonnet, as well as (to borrow a phrase from the back cover copy on my old Signet edition) a fish out of water in London society.
Cora is the daughter of a very wealthy merchant, and when she saves a duke’s young heir from drowning, the child’s grateful grandmother, the Duchess of Bridgewater, asks Cora to allow her to convey her thanks by bringing Cora to London for a season. The duchess wants to help Cora snag a gentleman for a husband, and Cora, excited by the prospect of hobnobbing with the ton, agrees.
Trouble is that farce is Cora’s close companion. The child she “saved” from drowning, for example, was perfectly capable of swimming on his own. At her first London ball, Cora, at the insistence of one of the duchess’s daughters, wears slippers a size too small. Just when she is about to be introduced to Lord Francis Kneller, Cora trips over her pinched feet so that Francis has to catch her in his arms. Thus begins an unlikely friendship.
Lord Francis Kneller was the main reason I wanted to read this book. Francis appeared in the prequel, Lord Carew’s Bride, where he was one of society beauty Samantha Newman’s many male friends. Elegant and dapper, Francis was stunned when Samantha, who had chosen to remain unmarried for years, announced that she was marrying the plain Marquess of Carew. That was the only occasion on which Francis blurted out his feelings for Samantha. But when he realized she loved Carew, he not only pretended to have feigned his upset, but acted as Carew’s second when Carew defended his wife’s honor.
Now Samantha is expecting a child with Carew, and the lovelorn Francis is depressed. When his friend the Duke of Bridgewater asks Francis to dance with Miss Cora Downes in order to aid her acceptance by society, Francis, who is considered a discerning trend-setter for the courting of society beauties, agrees.
But Cora does not realize how sought-after a suitor Francis is. And because he wears a turquoise coat, Cora thinks of him as a peacock. She quickly comes to like Francis, but his love of wearing colors like lavender, lemon, puce and pink, and something that her brother once told her about men who dress this way, cause Cora to jump to the conclusion that Francis must be gay.
This then, is a friends-to-lovers story with a twist. Francis and Cora each delight in the other’s company, but neither of them believes there could ever be anything romantic between them, and not just because Francis’s birth is higher than that of any man whom Cora could hope to marry. Francis believes himself in love with Samantha, and Cora thinks of Francis as a man who doesn’t swing that way.
And yet, even as they believe that they could never do so, they both fall in love. It is a delight to watch their friendship bloom because these two know how to be honest with each other and how to make one another laugh, and because it is clear that they are both good for each other.
Whether Cora is unable to dance any more due to her too-small slippers, whether she’s jumping out of Francis’s phaeton to try and save poodles from being trampled by a horse, or whether she fears she will pass out on being introduced to Prinny, Lord Francis is always there in the nick of time.
And whether Francis is feeling down in the doldrums due to his loss of Samantha or merely bored with the fashionable world, Miss Downes and her latest escapade is always the best medicine for his melancholy or ennui. Whether it’s poodles being saved or a child’s hat being chased, how can Francis resist Cora any better than he can a turquoise coat?
Both characters are charming. Francis is an interesting mixture of cynical and gallant, perceptive and able to laugh at Cora’s foibles. His bright coats signal that he is secure enough in himself to thumb his nose at what others think, which makes him perfect for the quirky Cora.
Cora is klutzy and occasionally clueless, but her impulse toward heroism stems from empathy and she is self-aware and able to laugh at herself. She is terrified of dukes and royalty, but is the kind of person who would not hesitate to throw herself in the path of a carriage to save a kitten. Her bravery and her gallantry, misguided though they are, along with her ability to see the humor in her mistakes, make her loveable and delightful.
The theme that appearances can be deceiving, a central one to many of your books, lends The Famous Heroine both humor and heart. When Cora learns that gay men can just as easily dress in sober colors and be big and brawny, she is embarrassed by her thoughtless stereotyping. But Cora herself is in danger of being stereotyped for her own tall, voluptuous appearance. And Francis, whose first thought on seeing her was that she belongs in a green room, greeting would-be “protectors,” grows genuinely protective of Cora.
There is also an entertaining role-reversal in that Cora is, in her way, just as protective of her friend Francis. If someone wants to impugn the way he dresses, Cora thinks, “just let them” and she will show that person a thing or two. And Francis has much the same thoughts about anyone who would in any way trespass against Cora.
There is a deliberate silliness to this book, with elements of farce, screwball comedy and even a little slapstick. Occasionally the balance tips in the wrong direction and it is hard to take Cora and Francis seriously as a romantic couple, especially since it takes Francis too long to realize that he is over Samantha. And yet, at other times, there is an underlying poignancy to this story of two vulnerable people who shelter each other from harm, and it is easy to see why Cora and Francis charm one another so much.
As I was reading The Famous Heroine, I thought about the nature of bravery and heroism, about the way appearances and quick judgments can mislead, and about the role that loyalty and friendship play in romantic relationships. I also laughed my head off several times. B+ for The Famous Heroine.
Note: The Famous Heroine was reprinted in a duet with The Plumed Bonnet which is not a recommended read. The buy links are for the book that is widely available. The Famous Heroine was originally published by Signet in 1996 and it’s 10 digit ISBN is 0451187733.