JOINT REVIEW: Devil in Disguise by Lisa Kleypas
Note: Since we had fun reviewing Chasing Cassandra together, Janine and I decided to do a joint review of Devil in Disguise.
Jennie: Before Janine got me into reading the two most recent Lisa Kleypas historical series (the Ravenels and then the Hathaways—Kleypas had a couple of contemporary series in between these), I hadn’t read one of Kleypas’ historical romances since 2006. I checked my book log; I read Devil in Winter in March of 2006 and gave it a B-. (I did read a couple of her contemporary romances a few years later.)
I enjoyed my recent return to Kleypas historical romanceland – I gave most of the 11 books in the Ravenels and Hathaways series B range grades, which isn’t bad for me.
I will confess that I had to think hard about how this book, #7 in the Ravenels series, *was* a Ravenels book. I have some ideas about how it might be tangential to the Ravenels series, but Janine, possessor of a mind like a steel trap, will know.
Janine: Ethan Ransom, a Ravenel by blood if not by surname, his wife Garrett, and Phoebe Ravenel, a member of the Ravenel family through marriage and Merritt’s close friend, have roles to play in this book, but I agree that Devil in Disguise is at least a squint and a half away from being a Ravenels book. It should really be considered part of a series called Children of the Wallflowers, except that that would be a clunky series title.
Jennie: The story opens in London in 1880. Lady Merritt Sterling is a widow running her husband’s shipping company. She encounters Keir MacRae, a Scotch whisky distiller (he’s of the *aggressively Scottish* genus of Scotsmen) when there’s a problem with the off-loading of his very important, very expensive barrels of whisky, which he’s come to London to sell.
MacRae is upset about the delay that may mean he has to pay duties upfront, which would be financially disastrous for him. Merritt’s brother Luke, who works for her, has been dealing with the situation, but Merritt steps in to smooth things over and make sure that Keir suffers no penalties for a delay that isn’t his fault.
(MacRae is also angry because an accident on the dock has resulted in some of his whisky being spilled, and he is one of the things the whisky has been spilled on.)
Merritt and Keir fall into lust at first glance, which annoyed me a bit at first. I got over it quickly, maybe because it did somehow manage to feel more organic than insta-lust usually feels to me.
Janine: Agreed on both counts. At first, the instantaneous mutual attraction made me feel the romance was unearned but my irritation dissipated quickly. Their attraction didn’t seem forced for long.
Jennie: Merritt takes Keir to her office, gives him coffee and shows him her secretary’s new-fangled typewriter, on which they each type their names. Keir impulsively pockets the piece of paper that their names are typed together on.
Later, when she shows him the room above the warehouse where Keir can stay while his whisky is unloaded, they start kissing but stop themselves before things go further. By the end of the evening, Merritt has invited Keir to dine privately with her at her home the next evening (he does not agree, but two guesses as to whether he goes).
Devil in Disguise is at the heart an across-the-tracks romance. Merritt is the daughter of an earl, used to the finer things in life. Her decision to run her late husband’s business marks her as unconventional, but she’s still very much a lady. Keir is the only child of an older couple, both now deceased. He was raised in his father’s whisky business on the remote Scottish island of Islay, and he is a rough-hewn man focused on growing his business. Both of them are aware that the attraction between them can’t really go anywhere.
Complications arise when it appears that someone is trying harm Keir; first, he’s attacked on the street by a stranger and stabbed, and then a fire sweeps through the warehouse, with Keir deliberately trapped inside. Are these incidents tied somehow to Sebastian, Duke of Kingston’s, seeming interest in Keir? Sebastian is the hero of the aforementioned Devil in Winter and family friend of Merritt’s.
Janine: Merritt and Keir are winsome and their personality characteristics well-defined. Merritt possesses a maternal trait of managing things to her satisfaction but for good ends—making others feel comfortable and relaxed.
Jennie: I did like Keir referring to her several times as “a wee bully.” That was cute.
Janine: Kleypas’ hand is light enough with this that Merritt isn’t obnoxious. She’s also uncomplicated—a lack as well as a charm. Keir is charismatic; even sharing scenes with Sebastian, he isn’t overshadowed. He too is straightforward but his fish-out-of-water circumstances keep him from boring. I liked how his natural ease came up against situations that would make anyone uneasy.
But though their personalities are clearly delineated, Keir and Merritt’s backstories aren’t filled in enough and that keeps them from having real depth. Keir’s past doesn’t have equal power or poignancy to Devon, West, and Tom’s in earlier Ravenel books. That’s also true of Merritt’s backstory relative to Helen, Pandora, and Phoebe’s. The protagonists don’t get to stretch much so a full personhood doesn’t emerge for them. However winning and likable they are, they aren’t as engaging as most Kleypas protagonists.
Jennie: Yes – neither Keir nor Merritt were all that interesting to me. Both were nice, decent people, and well-deserving of an HEA. But Keir’s main conflict isn’t even with Merritt, and honestly it resolves itself pretty painlessly. Merritt has some lingering guilt and regret over her husband’s death, but I didn’t get the sense that she was unhappy and unfulfilled in her life before Keir came along.
That makes me wonder – do I need the characters to be unhappy when they meet for a romance to be compelling? I don’t usually think in those terms, but I do think in terms of the h/h making each other’s lives better and completing each other in some sense (this is not a concept I extend to real life, but it works for me in romantic fiction).
Janine: A certain degree of personal unhappiness in characters’ pasts is helpful in all genres. It’s a basis for characters’ goals, internal conflicts/tension, and (if they have them) growth arcs. All things that can give characters depth and make them interesting, as well as add momentum to a plot.
To your point about how Keir’s main conflict isn’t even with Merritt—indeed, there’s a bigger problem: Keir’s main conflict barely even affects their romance.
Jennie: Keir and Merritt seemed to have a strong physical attraction (which is good, in a romance!), but beyond that, I didn’t feel a really strong connection between them.
Janine: The sex scenes were really sexy. Particularly the first two (the third had a slightly dicey aspect). And it’s unusual for Kleypas historical romances to have experienced heroines; the sexual initiation fantasy is part of Kleypas’ author brand.
I agree the good chemistry is based largely on sex (their being good-natured people and caring about each other are factors too). I liked Merritt but I wasn’t sure why Keir was so taken with her. I wish their shared understanding of business management had been touched on more.
Jennie: Agreed – that was a connection that could have been expanded upon. There’s not a lot of h/h conflict in this book – there’s the tension of the unsuitability of their connection, but that connection is so present from the beginning that the HEA feels more inevitable than usual.
Janine: The external plot about Keir and the Challons has been hugely controversial with Kleypas fans and I’m astounded by that.
Janine: Since their characters interact in this book, I would have liked a deeper and more heartfelt apology from Sebastian to Lillian for the past; the one he tendered her in Devil in Winter was one he underplayed and a bit grudging. Too, we’re living in the #metoo era now. But I was glad to see Lillian and Sebastian’s past conflict alluded to.
Jennie: I read It Happened One Autumn in 2005, and remember nothing about it, so I was a little confused by the Sebastian/Lillian rapprochement and its significance.
Janine: I loved Sebastian in this book otherwise. He’s become wittier and more captivating with each Ravenels series appearance. He’s always been sexy in a slinky and sleek, preening way, but there’s something about his maturity now and the slightly subversive way he occupies the role of patriarch that rocks.
Devil in Disguise ended up feeling a bit blah, and I think it’s because I just didn’t find Keir and Merritt that compelling as individuals or as a couple. Ultimately, this was a pleasant romance about two nice people finding love, and I’m giving it a B-.
Janine: It’s a C+ for me.