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REVIEW:  The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

REVIEW: The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas:

I was intrigued to learn that this Victorian Era romance is a prequel to Private Arrangements, one of my very favorite books, and hoped that the story might coincide with a past incident mentioned in that. My wish was granted!

Luckiest Lady in London Sherry thomas

Recommended by Willaful ( A | BN | K | S | G) * Historical

Louisa Cantwell, the ordinary looking, penniless daughter of a failed fortune-hunter and Lord Wrenworth, an excessively wealthy and handsome lord, have a surprising amount in common. Both have a scientific bent, both are shrewed planners, and both are carefully presenting a charming facade to society. Louisa is doing everything in her power to appear likable and attractive, in hopes of making a decent match; Felix’s motives are a more complex reaction to his loveless upbringing. (Today, I think he might be diagnosed with an attachment disorder.) They’re twin souls, and they know it:

You, sir, are a scoundrel.

As if he’d heard her thought, he glanced her way. Their gazes held, a pair of miscreants recognizing each other in a roomful of upstanding people.

It lasted only a moment, but the sweetness of that secret communion lingered: a joy that was also an ache in her heart. They were two of a kind–she wished she wouldn’t need to always guard herself from him.

There are two other important qualities they share. They’re ferociously attracted to each other — and when that attraction eventually leads to marriage, they’re each determined to have a good time, while carefully guarding their hearts.

The first half of the story is thrillingly tantalizing, as Louisa and Felix engage in a battle of wits imbued with sexual tension. Wanting to make her his mistress, he tells her unpleasant stories about the men she has hopes of marrying; she gains the upper hand by describing, quite truthfully, erotic dreams she has about him. But they’re both far too careful to risk anything beyond illicit conversation:

She set her fingers on the handle of the walking stick, still warm with the heat of his hand.

“Very fine specimen you have here,” she said, a little shocked at both her words and her action.

She was caressing the part of him that he had chosen to extend to her person, her fingertips exploring every nook and cranny of the handle. His gaze, intense and heavy-lidded, traveled from her face to her uninhibited hand and back again.

Since there’s no legitimate plot reason for them to not just go ahead and get married, I was pleased when they did. The story then becomes about their fear of having real feelings for each other, especially for the deeply messed-up Felix.

As in other Thomas books such as Private Arrangements and Not Quite a Husband, sex is used here as kind of a barometer of an unhealthy relationship. It’s fierce, and sometimes ugly, and provides a very effective weapon for a Victorian man to use against a well-schooled Victorian woman. But despite hurt and humiliation, Louisa is a match for Felix even in this arena.

(This is the section of the book that overlaps with part of Private Arrangements. I found it a little disappointing, because what happened sounds so excruciating when Gigi mentions it and we don’t actually see much of her feelings here. But on reflection, it makes sense to keep Gigi’s angst out of this story and focus on Louisa and Felix — and the event does provide a great trigger for drama in their relationship.)

Felix and Louisa aren’t always the most likable people, though Louisa is fairly sympathetic; she’s not ruthless or avaricious, just trying to provide for herself and her family, and to protect herself from the man she quite intelligently distrusts. The emotional journey is largely Felix’s, as he discovers the limits of his charm and learns what it means to actually care for another person.

I very much enjoyed the clever structure of this story, and its effective heart-wrenching. One aspect that disappointed me was the primarily off-stage character of Louisa’s sister Matilda, one of her primary motivations for marrying well. At one point, Louisa thinks, “It would never have occurred to her to disparage another debutante for her own competitive advantage, not even with an epileptic sister as an excuse.” That sums it up pretty well — Louisa’s sister does come across as more an excuse than an actual person, and Louisa thinks of her in a condescending, pitying way that’s grating.

Although I wasn’t as powerfully swept away by this as by some of its predecessors, I can’t be unhappy with elegant writing, a good battle of wits with well-armed opponents, and a juicy jolt of vicarious suffering. B



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DUELING REVIEW:  Betrayal by Sandra Schwab

DUELING REVIEW: Betrayal by Sandra Schwab

Dear Ms. Schwab:

The next time I see someone bewail, “they don’t write historical romance like they used to,” I’m going to recommend this. The intense, angsty, sometimes uncomfortable story is very reminiscent of older books such as those by Brenda Joyce or Kat Martin, though terser and less epic. Which was perfect for me, because I could get my old skool fix without having to be up all night. I read this in what felt like about five minutes, totally engrossed.

betrayalTwo seventeen year old boys meet by chance in Tuscany and are startled by their uncanny resemblance to each other. They’re even more startled when they discover they have the same last names. Yes, this is a historical romance version of “the Parent Trap”! Or more accurately, it was inspired by Das Doppelte Lottchen, the German book that inspired “The Parent Trap.” The book isn’t really about separated twins Gareth and Finnian though — they’re mainly the catalyst to reuinite their parents, two lovers who were torn apart, each feeling betrayed by the other.

The time is not specified, though I would guess the Victorian era. In Germany, Finnian’s mother Georgina is working as a companion, and after years of celibacy is starting to think about letting love and sex into her life again.  But even her fantasies about her employer’s secretary hint that she isn’t completely free of the past:

She would look down on his dark head, run her hands –

Georgina frowned.

Fair hair. She would run her hands through his fair hair.

Meanwhile in England, Georgina’s ex-husband Lord Ashburnham is still nursing his bitterness against the wife he believes was unfaithful, and leading as cold and proper a life as possible. Later, after Georgina reappears, he’ll think, “He could feel himself unravelling and he hated it. An Ashburnham did not unravel. An Ashburnham was always in control of himself.” What he doesn’t realize that he’s been emotionally unraveled for the past 17 years, caught up in a resentment that’s effectively kept him from getting close to anyone, including his own son Gareth.

This may be the stickiest part of the book — that its hero has rejected his son because of uncertain parentage for the past 17 years. It helps that he’s obviously repressing some genuine affection: “it did not befit the Earl of Ashburnham to race to the front door the minute his heir returned from his travel through Italy.” And Gareth’s upbringing has probably not been substantially different from that of his peers. Still, it’s a pretty ugly behavior for a romance hero. Gareth finds love and comfort when he takes Finnian’s place in Germany, but Finnian’s experience in England is far different.

The appeal of this sort of book is in the passion and intensity, and Betrayal is all about that. Rage, bitterness, vengefulness — tempered by unwilling love and concern.

 The expression on her face that last time in his study. Milky-white skin, shock that he had seen through her masquerade, through all her scheming and lies. Large as saucer her eyes had been.

Her eyes…

Ash’s stomach dropped. For a moment he had to lean his forehead against the smooth wood of the door-jamb.

He couldn’t remember the colour of her eyes.

Some unknown, unwanted feeling constricted his throat, almost as if the vanishing of this particular memory was a keen loss. Fool. Fool. What did it matter what the colour of her eyes had been?

And of course Ash’s hatred towards his ex-wife can’t overcome his distress at seeing her dressed in dark, drab clothes instead of the bright colors she once loved, and he dashes to rescue her when she’s in trouble.

Originally a serialized audiobook, Betrayal is the first self-published book by Sandra Schwab, who last published a romance in 2008. (She’s digitizing her previous books, so they should be available again soon.) It has a few editing errors, especially towards the end, and it’s a bit uneven. The old-style story is told in a suitably old-style way, but the first half feels more leisurely, with room for atmosphere and some enjoyably quirky touches, while the England sections seem to rush by, focused almost entirely on the emotions of the characters, their warring bitter and sensual memories, and some over the top villainy. But though it’s not the most substantial book, I happily devoured it. B-.




Dear Ms. Schwab,

Erich Kastner’s Das doppelte Lottchen was one of my favorite books as a child. I read it in Israel, in translation to Hebrew, and found it utterly charming. In adulthood, I even tracked down the English translation, Lisa and Lottie, which is sadly disappointing. I’m not able to read Das doppelete Lottchen in the original German, but compared to the Hebrew, Lisa and Lottie is a travesty.

BetrayalEnglish speakers will likely be most familiar with the bare bones of Kastner’s story of twins who switch places to uncover what went wrong in their parents’ marriage from its screen adaptations, The Parent Trap and sequels. Now comes your historical romance, Betrayal, which pays homage to Kastner’s beloved children’s book.

Betrayal first appeared in 2006 as a free podcast serial. When I saw that it has been reissued as an ebook and realized it was inspired by Das doppelte Lottchen, I decided to purchase it, due to my childhood love for the Kastner and also because I enjoyed your debut, The Lily Brand.

Finnian Crawley and Gareth Crawley, Viscount St. Asaph, meet in Tuscany one summer while on tour. The two seventeen year olds don’t recall meeting before, and yet they look so alike they can only be identical twins. After comparing notes, Finnian and Gareth decide to switch places. Finnian will go to Sussex, where Gareth resides with his father, the Earl of Ashburnham, while Gareth will go to Frankfurt, where Finnian lives with his mother, who serves as companion to a tradeswoman who deals in fabrics.

And so the twins switch places. In England, “Ash,” the Earl of Ashburnham, finds his heir much changed. Whereas Gareth was always rebellious and difficult to manage, he is now quieter and more thoughtful. In Germany, Georgina Crawley discovers that her son’s shoulders have broadened, and that he is becoming a man – one who puts her in mind of another man she once loved and lost.

Some of the changes are disconcerting to Ash and Georgina. “Finnian” no longer knows how to sort fabrics in the Frankfurt warehouse his mother’s employer owns, as he has done in the past. “St. Asaph” has learned to play the piano beautifully, and shows an affinity for a haunting melody that reminds Ash of the woman he only wants to forget.

Though Georgina is being courted by a gentleman she finds attractive, one whose suit she weighs accepting, and Ash’s mother attempts to introduce him to marriageable women, neither Ash nor Georgina can put the other out of his or her thoughts.

Ash, in particular, struggles with these feelings, since he believes Georgina betrayed him. When he blurts as much to his heir, a boy he has never fully treated as his son, “St. Asaph” refuses to believe him and takes off on a horse ride that causes him injury.

In Frankfurt, Gareth, posing as Finnian, begins to worry that something has happened to his brother. Ultimately, things come to a head when Georgina sees her son’s birthmark and realizes he is not the same son she stole when she left England, but her other son, Ash’s heir, whom she was forced to leave behind.

Georgina must journey to England with Gareth to confront Ash after seventeen years of separation. But what will her former husband’s reaction be? And will an old enemy, the person who poisoned her marriage, allow her to get close to Ash once again?

As I say, I loved Das doppelte Lottchen so perhaps it will come as no surprise that I enjoyed the big and small nods to Kastner’s classic children’s novel. The description of the giant statue of Neptune watching as the two boys first met reminded me of a bit in Kastner’s novel, in which the moon watches through the girls’ bedroom window at summer camp to see them make up. This, and the two siblings moving to different countries, the parents’ awareness of “changes” in their children, one child’s struggles to master “old” skills and the revelations of “new” ones in both, all delighted me.

The whimsical prose and side characters reminded me a little bit of Eva Ibbotson’s romances, of which I’m very fond. And as for the main characters, both were likable and appealing, which surprised me in Ash’s case since the plot requires him to distrust Georgina almost until the very end. But despite this, and despite the fact that Ash doesn’t allow himself to view his heir as his son, I could see he was a good man who loved Georgina intensely and suffered greatly from her loss.

It was a nice irony that although Ash had wealth and position, Georgina, who had been cast out due to his anger at her supposed betrayal, fared better than he did. Though she missed him and the child she had left behind, she was less tortured, and ready to consider moving on. I especially liked that she was attracted to her employer’s secretary and thinking of marrying him.

There were, however, some significant problems and most of these had to do with the development of the romantic relationship. First, it takes over 40% of the novel for Ash and Georgina to meet. Until then, they are not shown interacting in the present day, only recalling past interactions.

Second, the majority of these flashbacks focus on Ash and Georgina’s satisfying sex life as a young married couple. While there is a nice role reversal in that Georgina is shown to have been the sexual aggressor, the flashbacks felt intrusive to me. For the most part, they amounted to mental lusting.

At a length of 170 pages, Betrayal is a short novel, and very little attention is given to the development of Ash and Georgina’s relationship. We don’t see much of their original courtship, and while it’s nice to know they had good chemistry in bed, I would have preferred to see some of their first interactions outside the bedroom in the flashbacks.

Once Georgina and Ash meet again, we see that their feelings for each other remain as powerful as ever. But seventeen years is a long time, and we never see them become reacquainted once they are in each other’s spheres again. Both think about how attractive the man and woman they have become are, relative to the boy and girl they used to be, but neither one takes the time or trouble to truly learn who the other has grown into and what changes time has wrought.

Instead the story is dependent on the resurrection of old feelings and on the plot conflict in the form of the obvious villain machinations and attempts to come between the two. This part of the story feels more predictable than the rest.

The conflict between Ash and Gareth is one we never see resolved between the two. While I have no doubt that Ash would try to make amends for his unfair treatment of Gareth, I would have liked to at least see him begin this process. But like most of the relationships in this novel, this was glossed over.

In thinking about Betrayal, I can see that it might have worked better for me as a free podcast. The chapters keep the plot moving forward, the characters are likable, the prose would have been nice to listen to. But as a novel it falls short because the characters and their relationships don’t get sufficient attention. C.




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