REVIEW: Artfully Yours by Joanna Lowell (x2)
Dear Joanna Lowell,
This is the second time we are reviewing your most recent romance here at DA. Layla reviewed Artfully Yours back in February. She told me it was her favorite of your four most recent romances and what can I say, even though I thought Dark Season was middling and couldn’t finish The Runaway Duchess, hope springs eternal and I checked Artfully Yours out of the library, hoping it would be as good as The Duke Undone, at least. Well, I agree with Layla: it was better.
Alan De’Ath, the novel’s main male character, is an art and music critic and a duke’s younger brother. Alan and his brother Geoffrey, the duke, have a falling out early on. Geoffrey wants Alan to use the power of his pen to aid in Geoffrey’s political ambitions, and Alan wants his brother to help his bedridden son lead a fuller life instead of cloistering him away. An argument about this escalates when Alan identifies one of his brother Geoffrey’s paintings, supposedly a Rembrandt, as a forgery. They come to blows over it.
The argument is first disrupted when a maid comes in and drops a tray, and the fight when she returns and quits. But Alan decides to prove the forgeries are forgeries and to see the forgers captured. That is something that could harm Geoffrey’s political ambitions because some of the people who bought the paintings are connected to prominent leaders who could aid Geoffrey or stand in his way, and these men want and expect Geoffrey to rein in Alan’s caustic pen. But Alan has too much integrity (and perhaps is too opinionated) to falsify his opinions.
Before I proceed further, I want to take a moment to appreciate the fact that hey—here is a work of fiction where the art critic isn’t the scum of the earth and in fact can have integrity and legitimate opinions. The nasty/villainous critic/reviewer trope is one of my dead last favorites, for obvious reasons (as well as, it often feels like authors and other content creators grinding an ax), and like Layla said in her review, it was refreshing to see it subverted.
Geoffrey forbids Alan from visiting with his nieces and nephew (the bedridden boy, Claude). Instead he uses them as leverage to get Alan to write the kind of reviews Geoffrey thinks he should be writing—glowing ones. Alan fires back that he will sell all the art in Geoffrey’s house, which he inherited until Geoffrey lets him visit the kids again. He is really worried for Claude.
There’s a long story behind why Alan and Geoffrey’s parents left the title and the (entailed, I think) properties to Geoffrey but gave Alan all the house’s contents. Alan has let Geoffrey keep them because he doesn’t hate his brother and it would be a horrible thing to take everything out of the house and sell it. But to save Claude from the kind of childhood he himself once had (more on this later), Alan would do even that.
Meanwhile, the maid who dropped the tray isn’t really a maid, but Nina Finch, the other main character and one of the art forgers. Nina infiltrated Geoffrey’s house to steal a letter that could incriminate her and her brother Jack. After Geoffrey sacks Nina (who is happy to be fired, since she’s already accomplished what she went there to do), Alan offers her a secretarial position because he feels bad about it. Nina declines but once Jack finds out about Alan’s intention to expose the forgers, he convinces Nina to accept the position after all so she can find out what Alan is up to.
Nina shows up at Alan’s house, which is also occupied by a small coterie of artists who double as his servants. Alan is their patron in a way, and he does not treat them with condescension. To house has a casual and sometimes humorous atmosphere. This, and Nina’s pet marmoset, made me fear this book was on a rapid descent into tweeness. Fortunately this turn was arrested by the deepening relationship between Alan and Nina and by the shading of the characters themselves as their backstories were filled in.
There were also a few details that might or might not be true to the period. I’m not sure, even though I know a lot about Late Victorian England. One is a a seemingly (and perhaps actually, it wasn’t clear to me) female artist who openly dresses in men’s clothes. Her circle is fringe and bohemian, so it didn’t seem completely out of the realm of possibility to me, but it also didn’t seem that probable. It’s not something I can speak with any confidence about, since I haven’t researched it, but it still pulled me out of the story.
However, the book got more serious and complex and interesting, as well as more believable, as it went on. The romance was moving and the way Lowell writes about it is more mature than in many books. There’s also the kind of background detail that adds a lot in my opinion, details about art forgery and about baking (Nina dreams of opening a pastry shop).
Alan’s backstory was really different, not something I have seen in a historical romance before. He was a frail boy and spent most of his childhood confined to his room or receiving one medical treatment or another, but there was an additional twist.
The best things about the book were the characterization and the language. The characters feel fresh and interesting and have some dimension. Even Jack and Geoffrey turn out to have more complexity and shades of gray than seems at first. The resolution to the conflict with regard to Claude was executed well.
Lowell also pulls out a nice turn of phrase every so often. There aren’t many genre novelists these days whose writing makes me notice it in a good way, but there’s some lovely writing in this book. Here’s an example:
Ever since she’d spent those golden months in Hensthorpe as a girl, she’d imagined returning for good. Living in the cottage. Herbs overhead, cats underfoot. How surprisingly giddy-making, to reveal her most cherished hopes to a stranger.
That’s good writing (I especially like “herbs overhead, cats underfoot”).
There’s one big downside, which is that Alan hides his need for a cane with affectations. The affectations made it hard for me to visualize him as sexy. There were some really sexy moments in this book but I kept visualizing a trimmer and not quite so short version of Mr. Moneybags from Monopoly.
The pacing was bit slow early on – the book picked up to me after the first kiss, and that took a bit to come along.
There was also something in Alan’s backstory that was horrifying and IMO overkill.
I’ve tried four of Lowell’s books and this is my favorite thus far, with The Duke Undone a close second. I’ll be interested to see where Lowell goes from here.B/B+.
PS Lowell’s books are dark, so I don’t know why the publishers keep giving them fluffy cartoon covers. I guess no one cares about content and packaging matching anymore.