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REVIEW:  A Night Like This by Julia Quinn

REVIEW: A Night Like This by Julia Quinn

Dear Ms. Quinn—

It’s taken me way too long to write up my review of your latest Regency romance A Night Like This. I finished it weeks ago and found it wanting but couldn’t figure out what exactly it wanted. So, I went back and read several older books of yours I think are grand. I revisited a few of the Bridgertons and caught up with Miss Miranda Cheever and her wonderfully dry diaries. What those books have that this one doesn’t is underpinning. I don’t mean heft—your books are light and that is often what makes them such lovely reads. But the books of yours I love all tell stories bolstered by concrete details that make your characters and their choices seem convincing. In A Night Like This, the characters are vaguely constructed and their motivations hazy. A Night Like This is, like most of your books, well-written, full of wryly humorous vignettes, and fun to whip through. But, when I’d finished it, I knew I’d never feel the desire to read it again nor would I heartily recommend it to others.

A Night Like This by Julia QuinnThe novel is the second in the Smythe-Smith series. The Smythe-Smiths are famous in the Quinn world for their awful annual musicales. The hero of this book, unlike his female relatives, does not perform in these sonic atrocities. In fact, Daniel Smythe-Smith hasn’t even attended one in three years. Rather, he’s been on the run, traveling all through Europe, trying to avoid assassins hunting him at the behest of Lord Ramsgate whose son, Daniel’s friend Hugh, Daniel inadvertently crippled in a duel. (I disliked this premise—the duel seemed unlikely given the men involved and it irritated me Daniel’s and Hugh’s lives are ruined because Daniel slips in the mud.)

Daniel has returned home however because Hugh has forced his father to call off the hunt. Daniel’s first day home just happens to be the day of his family’s annual performance. (Again, this seemed contrived to me.) Daniel, who doesn’t want to interrupt the musicale, sneaks into the rehearsal room to watch the show and realizes that the woman playing the piano is not a Smythe-Smith. As he stares at her, wondering why a non-Smythe-Smith is performing, she looks up and sees him staring at her. And Daniel is instantly, utterly ensnared.

Time stopped. It simply stopped. It was the most maudlin and clichéd way of describing it, but those few seconds when her face was lifted toward his . . . they stretched and pulled, melting into eternity.

She was beautiful. But that didn’t explain it. He’d seen beautiful women before. He’d slept with plenty of them, even. But this . . . Her . . . She . . .

Even his thoughts were tongue-tied.

Her hair was lustrously dark and thick, and it didn’t matter that it had been pulled back into a serviceable bun. She didn’t need curling tongs or velvet ribbons. She could have scraped her hair back like a ballerina, or shaved it all off, and she’d still be the most exquisite creature he’d ever beheld.

It was her face, it had to be. Heart-shaped and pale, with the most amazing dark, winged brows. In the dusky light, he couldn’t tell what color her eyes were, and that seemed a tragedy. But her lips . . .

He dearly hoped this woman was not married, because he was going to kiss her. The only question was when.

The woman, Anne Wynter, is equally instantly taken with Daniel. After the concert, Daniel finds Anne in a deserted hallway and within minutes of meeting one another–Anne is the governess to the daughters of Daniel’s aunt-are wrapped in each other’s arms and kissing as though there is no tomorrow. Daniel goes a bit batty.

Still, he was not ready to let her go. She smelled like England, of soft rain and sun-kissed meadows. And she felt like the best kind of heaven. He wanted to wrap himself around, bury himself within her, and stay there for all of his days. He hadn’t had a drop to drink in three years, but he was intoxicated now, bubbling with a lightness he’d never thought to feel again.

It was madness. It had to be.

From that moment on, Daniel is determined to make Anne his. He is single-minded about his pursuit; I found this hard to understand. Daniel, like so many Regency heroes, knows the rigid social structure his class swears by. Yet he seems almost oblivious to how difficult his courtship could make life for not only himself and Anne, but his family as well. He acts more like a randy teenager than a socially aware adult. He is charming, but not very credible.

Anne is equally unlikely. She’s not who she claims to be and she lives in terror of having her fake credentials unmasked. Her life story seemed over the top to me. Despite having suffered extreme adversity early on in her life, she’s still gorgeous, kind, funny, smart, and, until the end of the book, exceedingly level-headed. She’s the reverse of Daniel—she’s obsessed with the differences in their social statuses and mentions at least a hundred times she’s a lowly governess and he’s a lofty earl and thus THEY CAN”T BE TOGETHER.  Much of the book is spent with Daniel dreamily nattering on and on about how beautiful and wonderful and perfect Anne is while Anne is wringing her wrists over how threatened she feels by everything.

To be fair, there is a VERY BAD MAN after Anne and BAD THINGS do happen because of this knave.  He is, though, just a bad man. He’s not very smart, his planning is poor, and his motives are at odds with his life goals. He didn’t do a thing for me.

The first half of the book does have several very funny moments—the Smythe-Smiths are an amusing bunch—and the love scenes between Anne and Daniel are ardent and pack some heat. I would give the first half of the book a B even with the aforementioned flaws.

The second half of the book, sadly, rates a C. Not only do both Anne and Daniel behave in TSTL ways but their courtship takes an almost creepy turn. I disliked intensely the way sex and virginity was handled in this novel.

Spoiler:

[spoiler]Anne first refuses to sleep with Daniel because he—according to her—can’t marry her. He tells her he wants to marry her. She leaves him, things happen and then she returns, and offers to be his mistress. He says no, he wants marriage. She says she’s not worthy of him because she’s not a virgin. He says he doesn’t care. He asks for her hand again. She accepts and agrees to let him make love to her that very night. And then she says–and this unsettled me–she’s decided she’s is now a virgin, that her other time (which she chose—she wasn’t forced) doesn’t count. I think that in some way this is demeaning to Anne and to the sexual choices women make. Daniel loves her, she loves him, why does she have to become pure for their love to be consummated?[/spoiler]

I also found the drama at the end of the book cartoonish and contrived. The entire book is full of coincidences—this is what I mean, in part, by lack of underpinning. Rather than creating viable reasons for the plot and characters to evolve organically, the book relies on unsupported assertion and calculated unlikely chance. By the end, Daniel has saved the day, Anne has embraced her true self, and society treats them indulgently. All three things happen just because they do rather than because the story works in such a way that those things are the most natural outcomes.

If you adore Ms. Quinn’s work, you’ll adore this book. It’s got all the things she does well. But, if you are like me, cranky when faced with a plot fueled by happenstance and characters that exist by fiat rather than by layered, viable details, this book will probably irk you. Though it was—I must be honest here—a fun, fast read, it’s not a book that stands the test of even a week’s time. I give it a C.

Regretfully,

 

Dabney

 

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REVIEW: Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn

REVIEW: Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn

Dear Ms. Quinn,

When Jane sent me the arc of your upcoming book “Just Like Heaven,” I was torn. On the one hand, it’s a Julia Quinn book and I’ve adored so many of your past books. On the other hand, some of your most recent books haven’t worked for me. I think the last one I even tried turned out to be a DNF. “But,” said my self, “It’s a Quinn. And look at the back blurb – it’s got Bridgertons. And Smythe-Smiths!” Well, that did it for me. As Lady Danbury says, someone’s got to clap for those poor girls.

Just Like Heaven by Julia QuinnMarcus Holroyd is very much like any other Regency nobleman. His parents conceived him then basically left him to nurses and tutors to raise. He went to Eton and there met Daniel Smythe-Smith who befriended Marcus and invited the lonely young boy home for holidays where he became almost one of the boisterous Smythe-Smith clan. The youngest sibling by far was Honoria, who tried to tag along with her beloved brother and Marcus but who, as young sisters are wont to do, usually ended up getting in the way.

Now everyone is all grown up and due to a duel and a vengeful father, Daniel has had to flee to Italy. But before he leaves, he makes Marcus promise to look after unmarried Honoria and screen her suitors. After a year of this, Marcus is tired of glowering at fortune hunters while Honoria is puzzled at her lack of suitable marriage offers. Daniel’s disgrace has sent his widowed mother into a tailspin and Honoria is desperate to escape the pall over her family name and the move her mother intends to make to boring Bath.

When Honoria travels to a friend’s country estate near where Marcus lives with the intention of scouting for husbands there, the two meet up again. Due to one of her schemes, Marcus ends up injured and if not for Honoria and her mother, would have died. It’s during the difficult nursing that the scales finally fall from their eyes. However in true romance novel fashion, Honoria discovers Marcus’s pledge to Daniel and misinterprets Marcus’s intentions towards her. She and her mother return to London and the upcoming annual Smythe-Smith musicale. Can Marcus convince Honoria that he loves her for herself and not some silly pledge? Can Honoria get her cousins to practice the difficult piece for the upcoming event? And will the invited London ton be able to find enough cotton to stuff their ears and survive another “musical” offering from the women of the Smythe-Smith clan?

As I read the book, it dawned on me that not much actually happens in these Bridgerton offshoot books. Not much plot-wise anyway. It just seems like a lot of nattering on and wittering about and screwballish type internal and external dialogue. On and on, natter, natter, natter. This worked better for me when it’s Marcus and Honoria interacting but less well when Honoria is talking with her friends or female cousins. Those later conversations tend to slump into almost childish “Did not!” ” Did too!” ” Did not!” ” Did too!” exchanges. I half expect one of the characters to end it by sticking out her tongue.

I know I should remember who some of the background and incidental people are throughout the book and at the performance. I remember Lady Danbury and obviously Colin and Gregory Bridgerton plus Penelope’s sister but some of the others have escaped my memory after this many years since reading those books. Who is Miss Wynter? In her martial attempts to arrange marriages, Mrs. Royle is a force to be reckoned with. Were I a young man of good family, I’d be ducking and dodging from the likes of her too.

Ah, the state of medical care at the time. Abysmal is too kind a term. But what didn’t kill Marcus got him a wife so all’s well that ends well. I found this section to be the most interesting and enjoyed the moments when Honoria’s mother pitches in and saves the day. There’s real meat to the narrative and less dithering. Intense emotions instead of circular talk, talk that does little to advance the plot and seems to serve only to get some laughs.

The romance is more the “can’t see what’s under your nose” type. Both almost simultaneously realize their true love but of course it takes a while before they finally get together. I do love Marcus defending Honoria against Mr. Grimston – charging into the public eye, which he hates doing, then forcing a real apology. The public proposal, while sweet as honey, doesn’t come off as very believable for the time but then compared to the whole book, it’s about as believable as the rest of it. I also puzzled that there isn’t more about Honoria’s red shoes given the fact that they are featured in the cover art. It’s not that anyone except Marcus notices them and then only after Honoria told him about them. Maybe they, along with the shared love of chocolate cake, are supposed to be quiet thing only between Marcus and Honoria.

“Just Like Heaven” is the closest thing so far to a backstage pass for a Smythe-Smith musical performance. Honoria seems to have figured out the true meaning of it all. It’s family, it’s tradition, it’s togetherness and that is why I can see her evolving from “we’re terrible” to “it’s my cousins and me” to “I can’t wait until my daughters are up on that stage.” I can just see great granddaughters doing a ragtime version as their family grit their collective teeth and cheer them on.

While the book doesn’t reach the level of enjoyment I’ve gotten from my favorites – “Romancing Mr. Bridgerton,” “The Viscount Who Loved Me” or “The Duke and I” – it’s nice to revisit the relatively harmless world of Bridgerton London. It is what it is and that is a pretty soap bubble that floats and entertains. Maybe there will be more substance to Daniel’s story, which I assume is coming at some point. This one leaves me with a genial smile even if ultimately I probably won’t remember much about it. C+

~Jayne

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