JOINT REVIEW: Chasing Cassandra by Lisa Kleypas
Janine: As a lot of people probably already know (because I couldn’t stop talking about it), I’m a huge fan of Devil’s Daughter, the previous book in Lisa Kleypas’s Ravenels series. So I was thrilled to get an ARC of Chasing Cassandra, the sixth and final book in the series. Jennie caught up on the series last year, and I invited her to review Chasing Cassandra with me.
Jennie: I recently finished Devil’s Daughter (I’ll have a mini review in an upcoming “What I’ve Been Reading” post), and I gave it a B. Maybe I had too-high expectations, but while it had some elements I really liked, it felt sort of formulaic to me.
Janine: We can talk about that when your mini review runs.
Chasing Cassandra begins with Tom Severin, a successful railway magnate, crashing a wedding. Tired, jaded and bored, he slips away to the music room and closes his eyes to rest them. When Lady Cassandra Ravenel, the bride’s twin sister, and West, her distant cousin and Tom’s erstwhile friend, enter the room, Tom overhears them. A troubled Cassandra begs West to marry her if she hasn’t found a husband by age twenty-five. West won’t consider it, but Tom, gobsmacked by her beauty, offers his own hand instead.
Cassandra and Tom have the opportunity to converse privately soon after, and Tom tells Cassandra he made his offer not just because she’s beautiful. He’s also drawn to her because she professed to West that she never nags, slams doors or sulks. Tom tries to sell her on own his good qualities. Would it mater so much if her husband couldn’t love her? Cassandra asks, “Why couldn’t he? Is he missing a heart altogether?” “No, he has one, but it’s never worked that way. It’s…frozen,” is Tom’s answer.
The topic shifts to fiction. Tom doesn’t read novels, but agrees to try one on Cassandra’s recommendation. Again, he tries to enumerate all he can offer her, but Cassandra, though attracted to Tom, declines with the words, “Not if your heart is frozen.” As she leaves, she hears him murmur. “Actually…I think it just thawed a little.”
Devon, Cassandra’s other cousin, is no keener than West on the idea of Tom with Cassandra. The housekeeper interrupts Tom and Devon’s discussion of that to report an urgent problem with the boiler and a rueful Devon accepts Tom’s offer to fix it. Cassandra has chosen Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days for Tom, and she finds Tom working in the kitchen. They talk while he fixes the boiler, and they find more things to like about one another. Cassandra challenges Tom to discover the lesson hidden in the novel, and Tom reveals the few rules he follows.
Tom’s past also comes up; when Tom was ten, his father abandoned the family and left it to Tom it to support his mother and sisters. Later on in the conversation, Cassandra confesses that she wouldn’t want Tom to change. “I like you just as you are,” she says. But when they part, she notices wariness in his eyes. That evening, her maid returns the book to Cassandra. Tom has left without taking it.
Four months pass and Tom is unable to stop thinking about Cassandra, though she is an unacceptable vulnerability. When, over lunch, he admits his inability to love to Rhys Winterborne, his friend and Cassandra’s brother-in-law, Rhys challenges Tom to follow his instincts rather than go after what he thinks he should want.
On his way back to work, Tom spots a street boy hunting for cigarette stubs (to make cheap cigarettes out of). The day is windy and Tom loses his hat. He expects the urchin to steal it but the boy, named Bazzle, returns the hat. For some reason Tom doesn’t want to examine, he offers Bazzle a job sweeping his offices.
A month later, at West and Phoebe’s wedding, Tom runs into Cassandra. He mentions that he recently read Around the World in Eighty Days. Why didn’t he take her copy? Cassandra asks. Tom admits that he didn’t want to think of her. Cassandra is amused at his misinterpretation of the book–he confused the plot twist with the theme.
That evening, Cassandra asks Tom why he won’t be her friend. Tom forces her to admit that friendship isn’t what either of them want. They share a magical dance in the moonlight and a shattering kiss. But Tom still rejects the emotions he feels in her presence. And even as he fights them, they grow—as do the number of novels he’s read and his reluctant aiding of Bazzle.
Can Tom get over Cassandra? Will he ever bring himself to chase after her, despite how vulnerable that would make him? And can Cassandra succeed in thawing out his heart?
I had a blast reading Chasing Cassandra. It won’t displace Devil’s Daughter as my favorite Kleypas—that would be very hard to do—but it was a load of fun. Going into it, I anticipated a dynamic like the one between Poppy and Harry in Tempt Me at Twilight, because of some similarities Tom and Cassandra share with those characters. But while the similarities are present (especially between Harry and Tom), the dynamic and the plot were actually very different.
The conflict in Chasing Cassandra is much lower key than the one in Tempt Me at Twilight and at times it felt too much so. Tom’s statement about his heart, “Actually…I think it just thawed a little,” comes at just 7% into the book, and that felt rushed to me. Since the story is about whether and how Tom’s heart can be thawed, that line diffused some of the tension too early.
Jennie: I thought so too, but then months go by without any contact between them (after he leaves the book she’s given him). I became absorbed enough in the book and the characters that I was able to forget that the ending was a foregone conclusion. (This is one of my main requirements from a good romance.)
Janine: I enjoyed the whole book, start to finish, but for me that tension didn’t fully come back until around 40% in.
For the most part, the only plot conflict in the first half is Tom’s resistance to loving and being loved. His father’s abandonment is mentioned early on, but it’s clear that there’s more to the story—stuff that we only learn about late in the novel. It’s amusing when Tom says that he only allows himself to feel five emotions and it’s clear that all the messy ones are excluded. But not fully knowing his reasons makes his resistance seem almost token early on.
Jennie: Honestly, I may be looking at it with too-modern eyes, but I wondered if Tom was supposed to be on the autism spectrum (with a very mild case, of course). He was so literal-minded, and though some of the business about “five emotions” seemed to be a choice based on past experiences, it also seemed like he genuinely didn’t have access to other emotions, at least early on.
Janine: I don’t think you are looking at it with too-modern eyes. It didn’t occur to me but I’ve seen other readers suggest that too. Since Henry’s “wasting disease” in Devil’s Daughter was Crohn’s Disease, it’s quite possible that part of Tom’s issue is Asperger’s. The word “autism” dates from 1912, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and “Asperger’s” is from 1965, so Kleypas couldn’t have used either word without being anachronistic.
Despite my aforementioned issues, I enjoyed this early portion of the book because Tom and his confusion about love add a lot of warmth and humor. Some of his repartee with Cassandra sparkles. Here’s one example:
“You’re welcome to join me,” Cassandra found herself saying.
Severin hesitated. “Is that what you want?” he surprised her by asking.
Cassandra had to consider the question. “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I don’t want to be alone . . . but I don’t especially want to be with anyone either.”
“I’m the perfect solution, then.” He lowered to the place beside her. “You can say whatever you like to me. I make no moral judgments.”
Cassandra was slow to reply, momentarily distracted by his eyes. They were blue with dapples of brilliant green around the pupils, but one eye had far more green than the other.
“Everyone makes judgments,” she said in response to his statement.
“I don’t. My sense of right and wrong is different from most people’s. You could say I’m a moral nihilist.”
“Someone who believes nothing is innately right or wrong.”
“Oh, that’s dreadful,” she exclaimed.
“I know,” he said, looking apologetic.
And another example:
“One kiss wouldn’t change anything,” she protested, and flushed as she realized how brazen that sounded.
Mr. Severin drew back enough to look down at her, his fingertips toying with the fine wisps of hair at the nape of her neck. A shiver chased through her at the delicate caress.
“If you drift off course by only one navigational degree,” he said, “then by the time you’ve gone a hundred yards, you’d be off by about five feet. In a mile, you’d have strayed approximately ninety-two feet away from your original trajectory. If you’d set out from London to Aberdeen, you’d probably find yourself in the middle of the North Sea.” Seeing her frown of incomprehension, he explained, “According to basic geometry, one kiss could change your life.”
Jennie: Oh, I loved the humor in this book! I marked several passages, including this one, where West is trying to persuade Cassandra that Tom is not right for her:
She gave him a reproachful glance. “I thought you liked him.”
“I do, absolutely. He occupies a high place on the list of things I don’t respect myself for liking, right between street food and filthy drinking songs.”
Janine: This is one of the areas where Kleypas’s writing has evolved over the years. There is nice humor throughout the series, more so than in her earlier books. And with Devil’s Daughter and now Chasing Cassandra, she’s taken this aspect of her writing to another level.
As I mentioned before, Tom’s resistance to marrying for love felt a bit…unsubstantiated. But there was something very lovable about him, despite, or perhaps even because of, his borderline-sociopathic focus on winning the advantage in every situation. When he finally decides to sacrifice instead of win, it’s hard not to love him.
Jennie: I think there’s something special about characters (maybe especially heroes?) who lack self-knowledge or have blind spots about their own characters. Watching them blossom, for lack of a better word, into their full potential is very satisfying.
Jennie: So many romance heroes’ resistance to love feels unsubstantiated to me. Often it’s resist, resist, resist, then the breakthrough and the HEA. So I always kind of know it’s coming – it’s just a matter of whether the author can distract me enough that I’m not focusing on the inevitable. In this book, Kleypas did a pretty good job of distracting me.
Janine: There was some good distraction in the first half, yes, but not quite as much romantic tension in some of the earlier books in the series, I think. Devon and Kathleen’s book, though it’s not a favorite of mine, had more believable hero resistance, and so did West and Phoebe’s.
Maybe it’s because there were layers to the resistance there—the conflicts they articulated were undergirded by a second, deeper, unarticulated layer? Devon and Kathleen argued about Devon’s responsibilities to his cousins and his tenants, but underneath that was Devon’s fear of commitment. West talked a good game about how the skeletons in his closet would hurt Phoebe and her sons someday but underpinning that was the fear that if he trusted Phoebe with his heart it would hurt, even wreck him.
With Tom, it was pretty much what you see is what you get—I mean, there’s his comment about his heart being frozen as well as his fear of being let down by other people. But I guess it boils down to the fact that I never bought the first; it was clear from the beginning that he had a heart.
Jennie: I think what maybe made it a little different for me was that Tom’s resistance wasn’t (at least initially) to marrying Cassandra; it was to being able to love her. While I’ve certainly read romances where the hero declares that he’s incapable of love, often (at least in my recollection) this is a prelude to (or an aspect of) a marriage of convenience plot.
Janine: As I read it, Tom’s resistance wasn’t to the ability to love but rather to loving and in so doing, trusting his heart to others. I’ve seen that in a variety of plots. Still, I liked it here; it was well-executed. And seeing Tom oppose marriage to Cassandra after he was already in love with her added freshness.
Cassandra’s characterization felt like it needed something. She was kind, sweet, smart and attractive, but despite my liking for her, I felt she was slightly underdeveloped. I tried to find what, besides Tom, was the complication in her life and all I could come up with was her self-consciousness about her weight. That was very relatable but I wasn’t entirely sure how to visualize her since multiple characters thought she was drop-dead gorgeous.
Jennie: Yes, I felt like she was supposed to be sort of the uncomplicated Ravenel (though for all we heard over the series that the Ravenels were wild and temperamental, only Pandora of the girls was really sort of “different” – Helen was similar to Cassandra in a lot of ways). I felt that her desire for a quiet country life with a dog and children was sort of glossed over in the end. I wondered about that a bit.
Janine: That’s a great point. There was mention that Tom bought a property in the country, but with Poppy in Tempt Me at Twilight, her desire for a quiet life in the country was a major issue whereas here it petered out.
Cassandra’s other conflict was the worry that she wouldn’t find a husband in time. While this was a very real concern to many a Victorian-era high-society unmarried young woman, it seemed a bit misplaced in this book. Though Cassandra’s chaperone, Lady Berwick, was anxious for her to catch a title or a blue bloodline, that wasn’t Cassandra’s aim. She would have been happy with a doctor, baker, or newspaperman had she loved him, and her family would have been happy for her, so her urgency and her focus on the London season were a little inexplicable.
Jennie: I guess I just figured that Cassandra didn’t really have any other avenues for meeting men, so she was limited to what she might find on the marriage mart during the Season.
Janine: I have to squint to see that. There were house parties, shooting parties, garden parties, dinner parties and picnics held in the country, but the number of people who attended those was often smaller.
Janine: The second half of the book was stronger than the first and except for the spoiler I just mentioned, I loved it.
Janine: There is also a motif I loved that runs through Chasing Cassandra. Novels are alien to Tom and his interpretation of their lessons is too literal, cynical and prosaic. I thought this added a lot of charm and was also illustrative of Tom’s engineer’s mindset, his desire to dismantle everything to basic, concrete and manageable components. But novels, like people, are more than the sum of their parts. And novels, like people, engender emotions.
Jennie: Yes – this was probably my favorite aspect of Chasing Cassandra. Tom’s reading of novels and frequent misunderstanding of their lessons gives a real insight into his character, and his growth becomes apparent as he continues to read novels in spite of the fact that he doesn’t see the point in reading about made-up people.
Janine: Chasing Cassandra is a book about developing self-awareness and humility, about opening up to kindness and love, and to books. What reader wouldn’t love that? Well, I’m sure there’s one or two out there, but I’m not among them.
Jennie: I totally agree. My one caveat was that the ending felt slightly rushed to me. I was expecting there to be some sort of external conflict that pushes Tom to where he needs to finally be, and there was (though it came from a different course than I expected). But it all happened so quickly that it felt abrupt.
Janine: You’re right about that, but I liked that bit.
Jennie: Still, all in all, Chasing Cassandra was one of my favorite books in the series and I’m giving it an A-.
Janine: Most of my reasons for loving this book are in the hidden spoilers but I really did love it. It’s a B+/A- for me.