PLEASE NOTE: This joint review contains some SPOILERS. Also, I know the author a bit through Twitter. Jennie does not. –Janine
Jennie: I’d only read one of Miranda Neville’s previous books (The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, to which I gave a B-), and had put her in the category of “authors I need to try more of, because I want to understand what the fuss is about.” So when Janine suggested a joint review of Neville’s new book, I jumped at the chance.
Janine: I’m a fan of Neville’s Burgundy Club series. I graded all those books in the B to B+ range and enjoyed them very much, so I too jumped at the chance to review The Importance of Being Wicked. I requested the ARC, but before I read it, I read Neville’s prequel novella, The Second Seduction of a Lady, and found it surprisingly disappointing.
I didn’t connect with the main characters in that one, though I liked what I saw of the heroine of The Importance of Being Wicked in it. On the whole, The Second Seduction of a Lady was readable but not memorable, and I gave it a C grade. So I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Importance of Being Wicked, but it ended up being one of my favorite Neville works.
Jennie: I may give The Second Seduction of a Lady a try, even though you found it disappointing. I’d like to see more of Caro, and since it’s only novella-length I don’t feel like I have much to lose by trying it.
Janine: Keep in mind that Caro is only 17 in that novella, and therefore a younger and more unformed version of herself. She’s also a side character in her cousin Eleanor’s story.
Jennie: Will do. On to The Importance of Being Wicked!
Caroline Townsend eloped with her husband Robert at 17, earning banishment from her family and forever, it seemed, cutting herself off from respectable society. It doesn’t help that she and Robert immersed themselves in a set that lived on the edges of society – penniless artists, disreputable aristocrats and bohemian types.
The life suits Caro, though; she’s a natural-born free spirit. But when the book opens, she has been widowed for a year (Robert was carried off by a fever) and is barely scraping by; she’s beset by her husband’s debtors, who have become particularly rapacious since the rumor circulated that she is in possession of a Titian painting.
Caro is able to hold most off with the claim that her late husband in fact sold the painting before his death, but in fact she’s secreting it in a hidden room in her house, unable to part with it for sentimental reasons.
Here my modern middle-class morality reared its head; while we see that one of those hounding Caro is an unscrupulous “gentleman” (to use the term loosely) to whom Robert owed a gambling debt, many of the debtors are apparently tradespeople. While I appreciated Caro’s attachment to the Titian, I also appreciated that these ordinary businessfolk deserved to be paid for their services. But that’s neither here nor there.
Shortly after her latest unpleasant encounter with dunning, Caro welcomes her cousin Anne to London. Anne is an heiress who is expected to make a match with the Duke of Castleton. When the Duke shows up at Caro’s house, hoping to begin wooing his prospective bride, he first encounters Caro and briefly mistakes her for Anne.
Thomas (the duke) is very proper and is discombobulated (to say the least) by the very-improper Caro, not to mention by the large painting hanging on the drawing room wall, featuring a nude with a passing resemblance to his red-headed hostess. Caro further shocks Thomas by questioning him impertinently about, among other things, whether he keeps a mistress.
Nevertheless, Thomas is reluctantly drawn to the irrepressible Caro, much more so than to her innocent and relatively conventional cousin. The Dukes of Castleton descend from a bastard of Charles II and one of his many mistresses, but since the title’s ignominious beginnings, the dukes themselves have been very proper and punctilious in their devotion to duty. They have a reputation of marrying for money with the aim of increasing the prestige of the Castleton name. Thomas plans to continue this tradition; he has the example of late father, who married for love and came to regret it, when he considers veering off course.
As for Caro, Thomas is the first man she’s been attracted to since her husband’s death, but she’s worried both about the differences in their respective worldviews, and about the possibility of poaching on her cousin’s territory.
So, we have a pretty basic story here: opposites attract. The fact that it’s the man who’s the virtuous one and the woman who’s the rogue, so to speak, makes the story less common, but by no means unique. (The Julie Ann Long book I read before this one had the same theme.) Still, it’s a set up that I enjoy, at least when it’s done well. It’s definitely done well in The Importance of Being Wicked.
Thomas and Caro’s mutual attraction deepens when they are stranded alone and unchaperoned in Newmarket together. But Thomas is restrained from consummating the relationship because – well, because he’s Thomas.
Caro would probably give into temptation, except that Thomas has lied that he and Anne are now betrothed; it’s the pretext upon which he feels he can ride to Caro’s rescue to save her from an unwanted suitor. (Caro resents his high-handedness when he claims that as an almost-about-to-be relative, she’s under his protection.)
There were a number of things that I liked about the relationship between Thomas and Caro, in part because I felt these aspects set the book a bit apart from many historical romances. For one, I liked the rapport that the couple establish very early on – she calls him “Lord Stuffy” and he doesn’t take offense, showing that while he may be stuffy indeed, he’s capable of laughing at himself. In general Thomas is a lovely hero, mature and sensitive (and only occasionally given to bouts of caveman-like possessiveness in regards to Caro).
Janine: Thomas was a sweetheart, responsible, caring, and not hugely experienced in the bedroom. He was in many ways the straight man to Caro’s wild child. I liked Thomas but Caro was the character I loved most in this book. More on that in a bit.
Jennie: I also liked the realistic and mature way the book dealt with a subject not often tackled in romance (or at least not tackled with any nuance): money. Caro needs it, to pay her creditors; she wrongly assumes that Thomas has it. Even though he’s a duke, Thomas has his own financial woes; perhaps not as serious as Caro’s, but he’s definitely not rolling in cash and he needs to dower his two youngest sisters, a responsibility that weighs heavily on him.
Caro is realistically portrayed as being bad with money, the way that people who have lived in a somewhat irresponsible manner sometimes are. I liked this because it wasn’t made to be a major character flaw or something that even really needed to be resolved or corrected. It’s just a trait of hers, and I really appreciate it when characters are given minor, specific flaws and virtues; it makes them feel so much more real to me.
Janine: I agree with you that flaws and quirks make characters more three-dimensional. I too liked the way the novel dealt with money. It’s an issue in so many people’s relationships yet we rarely see it come up in a romance novel.
Jennie: I did like Caro, but I also thought she was the more flawed character of the two and she bugged me a time or two. She has a tendency to idealize her carefree (and responsibility-free) life with her first husband, and to tolerate the behavior of their ne’er-do-well friends a bit too long. (Seriously, a tip for Caro: if your friends are constantly trying to screw you over financially, they aren’t very good friends.)
Janine: My reaction to this aspect of Caro was the opposite of yours. If anything, this made me love her more. Partly because I often like the more flawed character in a pair, but it went far beyond that here.
Caro felt like such an original character to me. I’ve met her like in real life, but never in the pages of a romance novel. Her tolerance for her friends flaws stemmed partly from an innate generosity and need for freedom in herself – more than anything, she wanted to be allowed to be who she was, and so she wanted to allow others to be themselves.
But partly, too, from a vulnerability that made her cover up her pain with laughter. She was lively, clever and funny, because it was a way to override pain. She wanted there to always be a party in her house because the party-goers and moochers kept her from being alone and lonely, prevented her from having to feel her pain and think on what it was and why it hurt.
I’ll add here that I also loved the milieu of artists and bohemians, something I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in a regency romance before. I could feel the warmth of Caro’s house and the way it was welcoming to creative types and connoisseurs of art who were not always happy people. Their way of life rang true, and their get togethers reminded me of a couple parties I have been to long ago.
Jennie: When you lay it out like that, it does make me more sympathetic to Caro. I mean, I think my perception of her was very similar to yours but because I felt protective of Thomas’s own vulnerability, I was impatient with Caro’s, at least when it made her act in ways that hurt Thomas. But I’m reminded that Caro did have reasons for holding onto her idealized vision of her first husband. She does feel conflicted about it:
And she felt that she was truly killing Robert. Because he’d not only been her husband and her lover, but his friends had given her a family, a warmth and connection she’d lacked from her mother and brother.
Overall, I thought there was a good balance in that neither Thomas’ nor Caro’s way of life was idealized. He needed to become less rigid (mostly for his own good), and she needed to grow up a little and start seeing the world more clearly.
Janine: Yes, they balanced each other well.
Jennie: I really like a romance in which the h/h make each other better people.
Janine: I’ve come to expect that from Neville’s books – she did something similar in The Dangerous Viscount and in Confessions from an Arranged Marriage. I think she does that opposites-meeting-in-the-middle thing very well.
Jennie: It works for me because in general I’m not terribly comfortable with romances where one character “saves” another – it often comes off as unhealthy to me, or it reminds me that the real-life corollaries to such romances are usually unhealthy.
IRL, I think the idea of lovers who make each other better people might be a slightly over-romanticized ideal. But for romance novels it is just right: neither too prosaic nor too fantastical.
Another aspect I liked was the way that the characters’ sexual experience is dealt with. Caro has only been with her husband, and it’s implied that Thomas has only been with his one long-time mistress. But Caro and her husband were in love and were not uptight, proper or stuffy, and so consequently their sex life was (at least early on) lusty and inventive.
Janine: Yes, and Caro’s husband Robert was clearly more experienced in the bedroom than Thomas, so she learned a few tricks he didn’t.
Jennie: Exactly. Caro has to be the one to inform Thomas that women orgasm too. I liked the gender switch here (even in stuffy hero/wild heroine romance, often the stuffy heroes have to be sexual dynamos, and the heroines relatively innocent). I also liked that Thomas was not threatened by Caro’s knowledge but took to his role of “student” with alacrity.
Janine: Yes, at one point Caro says “I do like a man who knows how to ask for directions,” – that was both funny and sexy. I’ll admit though that there were times I felt a little uncomfortable reading the sex scenes because there was something so real about the way Caro taught Thomas what she needed from him. I felt almost like a voyeur into two people’s private activities. But at the same time, the choice to have Caro teach Thomas felt right for their characters – she was the bohemian and he was the stuffy duke.
Speaking of which, Thomas reminded a tiny bit of Wulfric from Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous in that like Wulf, because he was a duke, he had a public persona and a very different private self. Caro was great for Thomas because she made him acknowledge his private self.
Jennie: That’s a good way of putting it. Again, it goes back in a way to the lovers making each other better – not just in the sense of correcting their flaws, but allowing them to be their true selves.
Janine: I like that. I think allowing others to be their true selves is often more important as well as harder than correcting flaws.
There was an interesting mirroring in the characters because the same was true of Caro to some degree. She had this life of the party bohemian persona, but also some underlying loneliness and sadness, and just as what Thomas needed from marriage was more than money and prestige, what she wanted and needed from a marriage went beyond the freedom that she kept telling herself was the important thing.
Jennie: What do you think she got from the marriage? Security?
Janine: Yes, security and stability. I think they were exactly what she needed.
Jennie: It sounds like a somewhat unromantic concept, but again I think it’s a more mature view of love and romance. I mean, Caro definitely felt passion for Thomas; that wasn’t an issue. But she had learned enough from her first marriage to realize that rebellion for rebellion’s sake wasn’t terribly fulfilling. She was able to trust Thomas in a way that she couldn’t trust Robert, and to rely on him.
Janine: Exactly, and at the same time, Thomas was supportive in a way that her blood relatives weren’t. Dependability may not be a glamorous quality, but I think it’s quite romantic in its own way. To know that you can count on someone when the chips are down – isn’t that something most of us want?
Jennie: Absolutely. I think Neville actually made it sexy, if not necessarily glamorous.
The Importance of Being Wicked wasn’t perfect, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with any major criticisms of it. Most of the notes I made while reading were positive. I noted early on that the word “comprehensive” was used too much and in weird contexts (for instance, love scenes). Also, I was annoyed by Caro refusing money from her mother, with whom she has a difficult relationship – it seemed both very stupid of her and out of character (she hadn’t seemed particularly prideful in her poverty up to that point).
Janine: The latter annoyed me initially too, mainly because unlike Caro, I knew Thomas needed money. But after further thought I realized that was an illogical reason to be annoyed! Caro didn’t have that information, and I think if Thomas had had plenty of money, as she thought, I would have immediately felt that her response to her mother was exactly the right one. Her mother was toxic (this might be clearer to readers of The Secret Seduction of a Lady than to someone who has only read The Importance of Being Wicked), and if the money weren’t needed, it certainly wouldn’t be worth letting her back into Caro’s life. So when I think it out, I see that my initial annoyance makes no sense.
A flaw I noticed was that a serious conflict that crops up between Thomas and his mother in the second half was resolved in the blink of an eye. I wasn’t 100% convinced by the way that happened.
Jennie: I see your point, but I liked it because it showed Thomas growing and unbending, which he needed to do. The plot point could have been better developed, though (and I guessed the “surprise” associated with it well ahead of time).
Janine: There was also a point around the midpoint of the book where the plot conflict switched gears –whereas previously the main conflict was Thomas’ devotion to his father’s expectations for him and his resulting determination to marry Caro’s cousin Anne, that obstacle faded and money and trust issues came to the forefront. It took a bit of time for the later conflicts to gear up and for a little while my interest started flagging, but then those conflicts ramped up and I was back to being fully engaged.
On the whole though, I agree with you that there were very few flaws in this one. Some of Neville’s other books don’t fully engage me until about a quarter or so of the way in, or rush the denouement so that I don’t get as much emotional satisfaction as I’m hoping for. With this book, I felt that Neville nailed the beginning and that there was a really satisfying ending. The latter might have been due to the fact that Caro had some heavy issues from her first marriage to overcome and angst-fan that I am, I loved the scene where she came to terms with them.
Jennie: Ultimately, I did find the romance in The Importance of Being Wicked to be really quite lovely. Thomas and Caro, in addition to the usual lusting after each other, really seem to like each other. At one point she observes him, left to fend for himself and trying to cook (not something in a duke’s skill set, really), confronting a basket of eggs: “He picked one up, a small white oval cradled in his large palm, and considered it. Still baffled, adorably so.” Awww.
Later, when they are dining together:
“Do you know what I’d like?” he said. “I’d like a picture of us now at this table. I’d like to keep it to remind me of a happy moment.”
Oh my. Her heart would burst.
I think my heart melted a bit at that. The fondness between them, and the sort of sweetness, isn’t something you see in every romance.
So I think I can say that I now “get” Miranda Neville, and I plan to dive further into her backlist. My grade for The Importance of Being Wicked is a B+.
Janine: That was a heart-melting moment. I envy you for having her backlist ahead of you. And yeah, Neville’s characters are sweet and fond of one another in a way that’s really special because the notes she strikes feel true. This book stands out for its warmth and realness. It’s a B+ for me as well.