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REVIEW: The Gilded Lily by Deborah Swift

Dear Ms. Swift:

I find myself drawn to Restoration-era novels even though I haven’t found one I really love yet. I blame my years-ago late-night viewing of Forever Amber. The blurb for The Gilded Lily stated that it is “set in a London of atmospheric coffee houses, gilded mansions, and shady pawnshops hidden from rich men’s view”, and that description was evocative enough to make me want to read the book.

The Gilded Lily by Deborah SwiftThe story opens in the English village of Netherbarrow in 1660. Ella Appleby’s employer has died suddenly, and Ella takes the opportunity to steal his valuables and light out for London. She drags along her younger sister Sadie, a decision she comes to regret.

Ella is pretty and desirous of a better life. She wants to be more than a housemaid who warms the bed of her employer on the side. Sadie is shy and afraid of the world; the port-wine stain that covers part of her face has been a source of torment since she was born. She would be just as happy to stay in Netherbarrow, in spite of the father who beats her and the villagers who mistreat her.

But the girls are soon in London; Ella believes she can avoid the consequences of her thievery there. Unluckily for her, her employer’s twin brother, Titus Ibbetson, discovers his dead brother and the robbery when the girls have barely a few miles’ headstart. He tracks them to London, convinced that they murdered his brother Thomas in addition to stealing the silver.

It’s not as easy as Ella imagined to get lost in London. Sadie’s birthmark makes her very memorable, and Titus Ibbetson gets a bead on the sisters fairly quickly. They are forced to flee their lodgings and Sadie has to give up the job she’s gotten at a wigmaker’s – a job that Ella was already fired from. Now the situation is really dire: the law is after them, neither has a job, and their store of stolen goods is dwindling.

Ella has a plan, though – she had caught the eye of a customer at the wigmaker’s before she was fired. Jay Whitgift is interested in Ella, but not for the reasons she imagines. With his father, Jay runs ones of the largest pawnbroking operations in London. He’s not satisfied with the status quo, though, and has plans to gain money (and treasures; Jay has a strange attachment to the items he acquires, keeping a room full of snuffboxes and compacts and doodads). He wants to take advantage of the burgeoning interest of London ladies in beauty treatments by opening a salon of sorts that is to be the female equivalent of the coffeehouse. Jay thinks Ella, in spite of her lack of polish, is the perfect clerk for his shop, which he plans to call The Gilded Lily. Ella does not have the pinched, gray look of the London-born and -bred; she has a fresh country look that he thinks will appeal to his customers and draw them into buying his products. Meanwhile, he also wants to train Ella to eavesdrop and acquire information from the unsuspecting patrons, for his own nefarious reasons.

I was a bit surprised that The Gilded Lily didn’t use the setting more effectively. I don’t think that Charles II was referenced more than a couple of times, if that. Perhaps it was supposed to be implicitly understood that London was coming out from under the sober influence of Cromwell’s reign, but I would have liked to have heard more about the changes in society, even if Ella and Sadie might not have been as aware as a born Londoner of those changes. I wondered also if any of the depredations of the English Civil War had reached Netherbarrow when the girls were younger. If so, they weren’t mentioned. It’s not that there was no sense of the setting in the writing – London’s underbelly comes alive as dirty, corrupt and dangerous. But it could’ve been set in any number of time periods in London, since the poverty and want probably didn’t change much over the course of centuries. Aside from a couple of mentions of the theater, there’s not much that mark the story as being set in 1660 rather than say, 1760.

The Gilded Lily also suffered from a dearth of sympathetic characters. Ella and Sadie, the two main protagonists, are given some depth and shading that explains why they are the way they are, but somehow I still found them hard to warm up to. Ella is a hard case, damaged by witnessing her mother’s death at an early age. She is Sadie’s protector, but she also resents and mistreats her sister. It’s only when it’s made humiliatingly clear to Ella that Jay Whitby is just using her that the scales fall from her eyes and she realizes how her dreams of wealth and comfort have lead her astray and away from the one person who cares about her, Sadie. The timing was too convenient for this to be seen as a true epiphany.

Sadie is ostensibly more likable, at least in a conventional sense – she’s modest and (mostly) honest and virtuous and all that good heroine stuff. But she also struck me as frustratingly passive and at times just stupid, with a mule-like stubborness I found aggravating. I could kind of see why Ella would get irritated with her; she doesn’t do much to help improve their situation. She’s not at all a charismatic character, to be sure.

Most of the other characters are villainous to some lesser or greater degree, though even some of the villains are given more depth than you might expect. Whitby is a creepy villain precisely because it’s hard to get a grasp for much of the book on exactly how villainous he is; on the the one hand he seems to have some fondness for his aged father, in spite of their conflicts about the best way to run the business. But at other times he muses almost casually about how he’s considered having the old man knocked off so he can run Whitby’s his way. He gets more and more flat-out evil as the book goes on, though, and I was a bit disappointed in that, wondering if I’d imagined the glimpses of humanity I’d seen in him.

About the only characters I found genuinely likable were Corey, a co-worker of the sisters’ who helps Sadie when she runs into trouble and Dennis, the landlady’s son who works at Whitby’s and who takes a rather inexplicable shine to Sadie.

For me, The Gilded Lily wasn’t a bad book; it was just kind of blah. “Blah” is a description that feels like it calls out for a “C” grade, but because the writing (and mostly, the plotting) were competent, and the book mainly fell down on characterization, C+ feels like a fair grade to me.

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

24 Comments

  1. Kate Hewitt
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 12:39:35

    I was really excited by this book but I ended up not getting past the first few chapters. I found Ella and Sadie too unlikeable, which is kind of funny considering I love Forever Amber, and Amber has to be one of the most unlikeable heroines out there. But Ella, at least in the beginning of the book, wasn’t clever or interesting enough to make up for her unlikeable qualities, and Sadie seemed dull. I love the Restoration period, though, and would love to read another book like Forever Amber.

  2. Jayne
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 13:45:32

    @Kate Hewitt: Count me in as another “Forever Amber” lover – but what was with Cornel Wilde’s wig?

    Has anyone read Anthony Capella’s “The Empress of Ice Cream?” I loved his book “The Wedding Officer” but was less enthusiastic about “The Various Flavours of Coffee” so I’ve held off trying this one while looking for opinions on it.

  3. Janine
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 14:06:46

    I can’t recall Jennie, have you read Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks? It’s nothing like Forever Amber but it is a terrific book set in 1666, during the plague.

  4. Jennie
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 14:48:08

    @Kate Hewitt: Exactly! I’ve never read the book Forever Amber (probably should at some point) but Amber was a spirited and flawed heroine – sort of a restoration Scarlett O’Hara. If you’re going to make an unlikable heroine, you need to make her charming enough that the reader/viewer wants to like her in spite of her flaws.

    @Janine – I did read Year of Wonders about five years ago – I loved it. I went on to read March and People of the Book by the same author, and both were good, but Year of Wonders remains my favorite by her.

  5. Janine
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 15:14:06

    @Jennie: I read Forever Amber as a young teen (never saw the movie). I remember it as a frustrating book. Amber wouldn’t give up on the guy she wanted (can’t recall who it was) even when he wasn’t interested in her. And I kept waiting for the truth of her parentage to be revealed somehow, but it never was. Still, the book was hard to put down, and Amber, although having no redeeming qualities that I recall, was a compelling character.

  6. Kate Hewitt
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 15:18:59

    I’ve never seen the film Forever Amber, but I’ve read the book many times. I wondered if there would ever be a sequel because it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, but as far as I’m aware there wasn’t one. And Amber is very much like Scarlett O’Hara–that’s a terrific comparison. You are exasperated with her (the same way you are exasperated with Scarlett for obsessing over Ashley) and she is also incredibly selfish, shallow, and vain, and yet you still want to read about her. At least I did!

  7. Christine
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 17:21:52

    It’s a shame this book was disappointing as I am always looking for a good story set in Restoration England. I read the entire Jean Plaidy series as a teen (the books start in the reign of Henry VIII and continue until the 20th century with the daughter of each heroine getting her own story) and the Restoration set one “Lament For A Lost Lover” was one of my favorites with lots of excellent period details. One of my favorite books “The Oracle Glass” by Judith Merkle Riley is set in 17th century France. I’ve never read Forever Amber but I do know it was quite racy in its day. I remember reading that Ava Gardner was mad because one husband of hers told her not to read it (it was so shocking) then he went on to marry the author I think!

  8. Bethany
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 18:43:06

    I absolutely second Year of Wonders. It’s an amazingly written book.

  9. Evangeline
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 19:27:38

    Have you read Robyn Carr’s The Bellerose Bargain, The Braeswood Tapestry, and Chelynne? They were some of my first historical romances when I discovered the genre, and though I’m not sure how they hold up (surprised and thrilled to find them available as ebooks!), they were pretty meaty, richly-textured, and passionate. Jane Feather’s Venus is set during this period (my second favorite after the Edwardian era) as well, if you haven’t read that one. I’ve also enjoyed Lauren Royal’s Restoration romances, though they were more sweet and charming in the Regency vein (but not wallpaper or generic!) as opposed to the dark and cynical tone present in most books set in this era.

  10. etv13
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 19:49:47

    Let me put in a plug for Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne DuMaurier. It isn’t a genre romance (but then nor is Forever Amber), but it is an excellent, and very romantic, read set in the Restoration era.

  11. Jennie
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 23:44:00

    Wow, some good Restoration recs! I have never read Daphne DuMaurier, but I’ve liked the various adaptations of her works I’ve seen on tv. I should give her a try.

  12. Kate Hewitt
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 04:31:03

    Wintercombe by Pamela Belle is one of my favourite books–it is set during the English Civil War with lots of great period detail. It’s not a traditional romance–heroine is the wife of a Puritan soldier and the hero is a Cavalier–but I loved it. It’s the first in a trilogy.

  13. Kate Hewitt
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 04:36:04

    I just read the blurb for Year of Wonders, and it is about the same village and year as Jill Paton Walsh’s A Parcel of Patterns, which is a great YA book set in that era.

  14. Ros
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 08:47:30

    There’s also A Crowning Mercy by Susanna Kells (aka Bernard Cornwell) set during the Civil War. Again, it’s not genre romance but there is a lovely romantic thread in the story and a happy ending.

  15. cate
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 11:28:04

    They’re not Restoration novels (apart from the Marigold Chain), but you could do worse than seeking out Stella Riley’s corking trilogy ( it should’ve been a quad, but the publishers never went for Eden’s book) – A Splendid Defiance, The Black Madonna & Garland of Straw. They’re set during the Civil War and I think they are available on kindle .

  16. Olivia
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 16:05:42

    I thought The Empress of Ice Cream was magnificent, extremely well done.
    Not too long ago I read Swift’s The Lady’s Slipper, which did indeed make clear the depradations during the Commonwealth, and in particular the social and religious divide between the local gentry and merchant class, and the sufferings of the local Quaker community. Ella’s mistress–as in female employer–is the major protagonist, and married to the man Ella murders. I had heard that it is a better book than The Gilded Lily which I’d decided not to try even before reading this review. Even though I’m always starving for 17th century tales….

  17. Jennie
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 17:49:51

    @Kate Hewitt: I read Wintercombe years ago – it came highly recommended by readers I usually agreed with. I remember almost nothing about it, but I remember I didn’t like it much. I wish I could remember why!

    @Olivia – thanks for mentioning The Lady’s Slipper; I forgot to in my review. I haven’t read it but it was pretty clear that The Gilded Lily was a sequel so I looked it up and saw that it was about the wife of Thomas Ibbotsen. I probably won’t read it, but I am a bit curious about it.

  18. Laura Florand
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 18:09:50

    Sabrina Jeffries’ first books (under the pseudonym Deborah Martin) were set in the Restoration. She did her dissertation on Restoration comedy, if I recall correctly, and this was the period she felt passionately about. I remember her saying in a talk that she had to switch to Regencies because Restoration just didn’t sell, but she has re-released 2 of them recently, reworked. By Love Unveiled and Silver Deceptions.

    This is the period I love most, and if I ever publish historicals, it would be so I could write about this period. In fact, I think I have half a dozen half-written. :) Maybe one day!

  19. Ros
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 18:38:10

    @Laura Florand: Hah! Me too. I have a trilogy planned, but I haven’t time for the research right now. It’s a time period that’s so much more interesting and fun than Regency.

  20. Laura Florand
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 18:59:39

    @Ros: The more the merrier. :) We’ll usher in a grand new age of men in petticoat breeches. :)

  21. Kate Hewitt
    Mar 09, 2013 @ 02:30:50

    You might not have liked Wintercombe, Jennie, because it’s not a conventional romance with a HEA. And parts are a bit slow. I haven’t read it in years but I was enthralled the first time, and it made me read everything else Pamela Belle has written, which was a bit hit or miss.

  22. Natalie
    Mar 09, 2013 @ 10:55:59

    Judith James has published a few Restoration romance novels. I liked Libertine’s Kiss quite a bit.

  23. Ros
    Mar 09, 2013 @ 12:00:41

    @Laura Florand: The clothes! My men are all dripping with lace and have glorious hair and strut around like peacocks. Which is very shocking to my little Puritan heroine.

  24. Anna V
    Mar 10, 2013 @ 03:06:20

    Jude Morgan has a lovely Restoration novel The King’s Touch. I loved his novel about Mary Shelley and the others, Passion a lot.

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