REVIEW: Artfully Yours by Joanna Lowell
Dear Joanna Lowell,
In 2020, Janine reviewed your debut novel under the Joanna Lowell pen name, Dark Season. Janine and I also reviewed last year’s The Runaway Duchess your 2021 book, The Duke Undone. I was excited to see that you had a new book out and jumped at opportunity to read it.
Nina Finch isn’t suited for a life of crime. Raised by her art-forger brother, she can paint like Botticelli. But she’d so much rather be baking gooseberry tarts. She finally has the money she needs to open her own bakery. Unfortunately, her brother’s carelessness lands her—and their forgeries—directly under the nose of London’s most discerning art critic, Alan De’Ath. De’Ath knows the paintings are fake. He doesn’t know that Nina had a hand in their creation. In fact, he offers her a job in his household. Accepting it is the most dangerous thing she has ever done….
Alan takes pride in seeing things other people miss. He plans to catch the forger and cement his reputation. There’s only one problem: the closer he gets to the beguiling woman he hired, the less he trusts his perspective. Nina isn’t what she seems. But despite their false start, she just might hold the real key to his heart.
As Nina and Alan’s attraction grows, divided loyalties threaten to pull them apart and shatter their worlds. They’ll lose everything, or discover how powerful true love can be.
I’m going to start my review talking about the cover—because like the other two books in the series, it is illustrated (part of a larger trend in both historical and contemporary romance). I like a good illustrated cover—I think for example Emily Henry’s books have been hugely successful partly because of the suggestive and playful nature of the covers. I can see why publishers and some readers like them too—they are distant from the cheesy bodice ripper covers that elicit feelings of shame or public opprobrium (I used to hide the covers of books I was reading with covers like that, like Laura Kinsale’s old historicals with Fabio). However, I will say this cover is very bland—it doesn’t really convey anything about the book and given that the book is really about beauty and art (the hero is an art critic and heroine a closeted artist!!!) it’s ironic that this cover is anything but beautiful or artistic.
The book opens with a scene in which Nina Finch is masquerading as a maid at the Duke of Umfreville house. She witnesses a fight between the Duke and his brother Alan De’Ath, a famous art critic. In response to the Duke’s imperious demands, she quits in dramatic fashion. De’Ath who witnesses this scene of disobedience and is impressed by her spirit, offers her a job as his secretary. She refuses and we learn that she and her brother are art forgers—Nina’s role in it is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the book.
The book makes much of the fact that Alan De’Ath is a persona. He uses an old-fashioned dress cane the “sort an antiquarian gentleman might tuck beneath his arm.” He also wears side whiskers spectacles and velvet coats. I liked that it was the hero and not the heroine who undergoes an ‘unveiling’ or metamorphosis—Alan changes as he and Nina’s relationship grows, and we see him slowly shedding some of his persona. I found it achingly romantic when he reveals his truest inner self to Nina (a process which I absolutely adore—behind it is the idea that love is not transformative, rather it is about radical acceptance of the truest flawed self.)
Artfully Yours contains so many good tropes twists and subplots many of which appear in your previous books: class discord, aesthetics and art, fake vs real. In your book The Duke Undone you subverted the trope of artist and muse. In this book I think you play very cleverly with the idea of authentic and real vs illusion and fake. Art is central to this book–you question the value of art, the role of the artist and critic, the function of criticism, and you expand the definition of artist to include more sensual and earthly pleasures and production like baking and food (Nina’s dream in the book is to be a baker who owns her own shop.) I like the inclusiveness of that message and the way you use it to introduce elements of class critique. Art is not only for the consumption of the rich and wealthy, it can be found in everyday life and practice. Art is not just a commodity for sale, it can be a shared experience of beauty.
The book is set in 1885 Victorian London and the sense of place and time is well evoked. This is what seems to be missing from many recent historical romances—but I as a reader and lover of historical romance am so happy to read a book that feels like it’s set in a different time and place and where the characters are not ‘modern’ feeling or acting. You bring many aspects of the period into your storyline—the rise of the middle and working class, medical treatments and psychology, tuberculosis epidemic, the gendered nature of art production and criticism.
I love a spirited working-class heroine and Nina the heroine was as delight. In fact she is my favorite of your heroines. She comes from a humble working-class family, has a complex and traumatic childhood and a troubled but close relationship to her brother, Jack nicknamed by the press as the “Dutchified Dauber” a frustrated artist who becomes an art forger and convict. He was a very interesting three-dimensional, complex character.
Nina also has a close relationship to her two spinster aunts (a revelation about their relationship at the end of the book was perhaps the only instance where I was jolted out of the historical period of the book.) In many ways Nina is alone. She is an orphan and although she has her brother Jack , she is clearly on her own and managing well.
Nina is a subversion of a romance heroine ‘type’—while shy and inexperienced in some arenas, she is strong willed and determined and worldly in others. This is an unusual but attractive mix of qualities in a historical heroine—I think it’s hard to have a heroine true to her time and social class who is romantic but not idealistic, realistic without being cynical. Nina is exactly the kind of heroine I like to root for. For most of the book she is deceiving Alan, but she was not villainous. How was her deception excused? You have to read the book to find out the nuance but this is one area in which I think your book excels. The resolution to the deception and conflict was powerful and tender and realistic.
Sometimes I judge heroines by my reaction to them—would I like them in real life? Are they annoying? Unbelievable or too good to be true? Nina was very likeable, I would want to be her friend. I never felt angry with her or annoyed, rather I actually wanted her to ‘win’. I wanted her to get her bakery and her man and her happy ending.
One minor critique is that this kind of heroine does provoke a protectiveness in the hero that some readers might not like—for me I found it romantic and also historically realistic and accurate. And for the record, Nina doesn’t need to be rescued she figures things out herself but there is a doe eyed Disney princess vibe to her that some readers might not like. For me it was balanced by her core of practical determinism.
One final thing—I like that Nina was never a beauty queen. De’Ath is attracted to her spirit as well as her dimples, but at one point you mention that to others she would blend in or seem ordinary. I’m not a huge fan of outrageously beautiful and unreachable heroines, I liked Nina’s seeming ordinary ‘extraordinariness’.
De’Ath the hero, is her opposite on the outside. Cynical, critical, sophisticated and jaded. He is ‘legendary’ the ‘most discerning man in England’. He wears his persona as a kind of shield against the world knowing him, and in his role as a critic, he is brutally honest. He is also my favorite hero of yours. At first I was put off by the physical description of him—the antiquated cane and clothes which seem like an affectation. But soon he became more and more attractive—I like the way your descriptions of him evolve as we get to know him better, as his layers are peeled away. His eyes and your descriptions of them in particular, lured me as I find beautiful eyes very sexy! He has a core of decency and justice that I admired and the way he treats Nina, even after her deception is revealed, is swoon worthy.
Unlike with some of the heroes of your other books, I never thought of him as a blockhead. I am partial to intellectuals and I like his eruditeness, his sensitivity and also importantly, his actions. He wasn’t only a thinker, he was a doer. He acts when it is necessary and he cares for those around him—his brother (who he has a very complex and antagonistic relationship), his nephew who he loves (but who he doesn’t see clearly), Nina, who he falls in love with and isn’t afraid to express it. This is a bit contrary to our ideas of a critic—and I must say this is the first time that I found a critic sexy!!! Most of the time when I think of a critic, I imagine Anton Ego (hilarious name) from the Disney film Ratatouille. Alan De’Ath is most certainly not a cadaver like aesthete divorced from his senses. He was a surprisingly sexy and romantic hero.
The romance and sex: I liked the slow development of the romance. If anything, I wanted more!! Both in this and your other books the consummation and sex scenes come very late in the story, and left me unsatisfied. While I felt that there was a good balance of power between Nina and De’Ath despite their class differences and experiences, I wanted more scenes of tenderness and love between them. I was really rooting for them and while I saw their emotional connection, I needed more of their sexual one.
The conflict: The main conflict is of course that for most of the book, Nina is deceiving De’Ath. There are also numerous sub conflicts—De’Ath’s with his brother, De’Ath’s with his mother (this one is a huge spoiler so I won’t reveal it here!), De’Ath’s with Jack. There is also Nina’s conflict with Jack, and Jack’s conflict with the law. All the little conflicts feed into the big deceit and the denouement of the deceit was very satisfactory to me. I felt it was handled in a really mature and loving way, and it made me like De’Ath that much more.
I like the way the conflict with Jack was resolved as well. I did have some frustration at the ending being so tidy and neat. It felt that there needed to be a little more messiness to it for it to be realistic. Everything is resolved all the conflicts are swept away and everyone gets what they wanted—too Disney in a bad way! I also wanted more—the epilogue was lovely but I wanted to see more of Nina and De’Ath as a couple.
Your writing is beautiful, elegant and evocative. I love the way you evoke a sense of place and time, and the way you contextualize art criticism in Victorian England and art forgery. I really enjoyed the novelty of the book—the innovation in terms of the subversion of tropes, the critic as the hero, the heroine as a Victorian criminal Disney princess, the denouement of the main conflict. The heroine felt historically real and layered and the hero was sexy and romantic and original (I value originality so much these days!!). The writing which was rich and lyrical and despite some problems–the overabundance of ‘interesting’ side characters and the too tidy ending—I believed in the romance and wanted the happy couple to flourish.
My grade: A