REVIEW: House of Cads by Elizabeth Kingston
Dear Ms. Kingston,
Two years ago, I reviewed your Regency era historical romance, A Fallen Lady. Although the novel wasn’t perfect, it was memorable and emotional. Recently, I heard there was a sequel in the wings, and I wasted no time in requesting an a review copy. House of Cads is that sequel, about Helen’s good friend Marie-Anne de Vauteuil.
Marie-Anne, a Frenchwoman living in a quiet English village in Herefordshire, Bartle-on-the-Glen, has a scandalous past. Years ago, she nearly married Richard Shipley, a member of England’s upper class whose parents objected to the match due to her questionable background (Marie-Anne is a commoner, as well as having been brought up by prostitutes). But Richard died before he could marry her, and Marie-Anne miscarried their child.
Some years later, Marie-Anne receives a letter from Richard’s sister, Amy (short for Amarantha). Amy is in love with a Mr. Harner, a very proper, stuffy gentleman who aspires to be a vicar, and her younger sisters are behaving inappropriately, according to him. Phyllida, the youngest, has gotten herself engaged to a libertine poet, and Dahlia, the middle sister, has thrown over the heir to a duke for a wealthy American businessman.
Amy begs Marie-Anne to come to London and talk her sisters out of their folly—if Marie-Anne doesn’t, Mr. Harner won’t marry Amy because his uncle won’t approve of the match. Marie-Anne is feeling lonely in Bartle anyway, and wants to visit Stephen and Helen, Earl and Countess of Summerdale, though they are soon to leave on a trip to Norway. So she agrees.
Trouble is, almost as soon as she arrives in the Earl of Summerdale’s house in London and meets Dahlia’s fiance, the American businessman, she is attracted to him, though she recognizes that he is something of a cad. After all, Mr. Mason should not have asked her to driving in the park with him if he is engaged to Dahlia.
Mason, the businessman, explains that he only accidentally got engaged to Dahlia—he asked Dahlia how one goes about proposing when one wants to marry, and she misunderstood and thought he wanted to marry her. Before he could correct her, Dahlia told her sisters, and the engagement became public.
Marie-Anne agrees to extricate Mason from his engagement — after all, Amy wants Dahlia engaged to Lord Releford, the duke’s heir whom Dahlia dumped for Mason, and Marie-Anne suspects Dahlia of being still in love with Releford.
Breaking up Phyllida and Aloysius St. James, the libertine poet, will be harder, no matter how dreadful his poetry, since St. James is drop-dead gorgeous. Besides, Mason has a sneaking suspicion that it is not Phyllida and the poet who need to be broken up, but Amy and the would-be vicar.
The longer Marie-Anne is around Mason, the harder it is for her to resist him—and likewise. How convenient that Mason, along with Marie-Anne and the Shipley sisters, the vicar, the poet, the duke’s heir, and a few others, is invited to her friend Joyce’s country house party. Even more convenient that Joyce has put them in two rooms connected by a secret door.
Far less advantageous, though, that Mason is not a wealthy businessman at all, but a former small-time con artist now working as the illustrator for gossip sheets and gathering gossip on Marie-Anne’s friends. By the time Mason is liberated from his engagement to Dahlia and Marie-Anne finds out about his job, her heart is already entangled. Will she be able to keep herself out of his arms long enough to make it clear to him that he must choose between her and his unsavory profession?
Whereas A Fallen Lady was a very emotional novel (I went through half a box of tissues reading it), House of Cads is more lighthearted. This was a delightful book and I liked the clever writing very much. I would characterize the voice here as similar to that of authors like Rose Lerner, Loretta Chase, Kate Noble, and the late Miranda Neville.
Marie-Anne was a wonderful character, open, honest, and unashamed of who she was. Like the proverbial breath of fresh air, or even a whiff of smelling salts, she had a way of bringing others to their senses and clearing heads. Mason’s appeal was less tangible to me, as I’m not keen on con artists, but his childhood made his choices understandable and his enthusiasm for all things Marie-Anne was sweet. I liked the way he wanted to be better for her, even as he wasn’t sure he could be.
My one big issue with the book was Marie-Anne’s background—as much as I loved her, I didn’t understand what she was doing among the London aristocracy. Not only did she understandably dislike many of the shallow and hypocritical among them, but it was even more unbelievable that they would tolerate her in turn.
The notion that the Shipley sisters’ snobbish parents, who objected to her marriage to their son even when she was carrying his child, would be on board with Marie-Anne’s coming to London to wield her influence upon their young, unmarried daughters, was preposterous to say the least. Given her unconventional upbringing and her out-of-wedlock miscarriage, it was equally absurd that, even with the Earl of Summerdale’s sponsorship, society would accept her in their midst.
The strain this incongruity places on the plot shows in a few places. For example, when Mason asks if she is a Miss or a Madame, her reply is “I prefer to be called just Marie-Anne, but it seems that it is not allowed. Between us, I believe I am properly a Miss Marie-Anne, for I have never been a Mrs. Anything. But here in London I am called madame, for very tiresome reasons. Would you like to hear them?” Conveniently, Mason did not, but I wanted to hear and understand the reasons Marie-Anne would be addressed as Madame, no matter how tiresome they might be. Without a proper explanation this just read like nonsense being waved away.
I also didn’t quite understand how Marie-Anne’s backstory’s fit in. In A Fallen Lady, Joyce, a baroness, was presented as a friend of Helen’s who had chosen to stay in touch even after Helen was ruined, although Joyce’s baron husband disapproved of this. So initially, I assumed that Marie-Anne had met Helen in Bartle after Helen’s reputation was destroyed, and that Marie-Anne got to know Joyce through her.
That supposition was contradicted here, though, when it is mentioned that Marie-Anne has known not only Joyce but Joyce’s lover, Charlotte, for years. The implication is that at one time, years ago, Marie-Anne and Joyce moved in the same circles, but since Joyce was married to a baron, and Marie-Anne was a Frenchwoman of what to the English aristocracy would have been questionable origins, whose suitor never married her, I couldn’t quite understand how Marie-Anne entered those circles to begin with.
Had Marie-Anne been Richard’s widow (this could easily have been achieved even without his parents’ approval), and had she been just a touch more discreet, I would have found the social acceptance she enjoyed more credible.
Coming after A Fallen Lady, a book which not only acknowledges how horribly easy it was for a young lady to be dishonored and ruined in society’s eyes, but builds its entire plot on that foundation, this anachronism was jarring, especially since Marie-Anne seemed to remember the social value of propriety from time to time, and then forget it again, according to the needs of the storyline.
Other than that, House of Cads was thoroughly enjoyable. I truly loved Marie-Anne’s candor, her acceptance of herself and of the harmless foibles of the Shipley sisters, her rigorous insistence upon honesty and her disdain of snobbery. I also loved that at thirty-one, she was older than Mason by eight years.
Mason, although not as dazzling a character, was a good match for Marie-Anne, being, much like her, a fish-out-of-water in upper-class society, keenly aware of the hypocrisy of that world, and as supportive of her as she was of him. He too, should have found acceptance harder, but in his case, he deceived others as to his background. The way Mason incorporated bits and pieces of Marie-Anne into his drawings made it clear that he had fallen hard for her, but it was his ultimate willingness to give up his way of life for her that revealed how much she mattered to him.
Mason and Marie-Anne’s commonalities, and the ways they complemented one another, made it easy to see the pair of them as full partners in whatever future they might undertake.
Additionally, the romantic antics of the Shipley sisters added a good dose of humor to the story. Phyllida, in particular, was both hilarious and adorable, so much so that I’d like to see her in a story of her own.
In some ways this book was even better than A Fallen Lady, since it engaged me faster and I never doubted that I was in good hands. Marie-Anne’s French background makes me want to use words like elan and verve to describe the novel’s energy. If it weren’t for the annoying anachronism of Marie-Anne’s improbable acceptance in the world of the English aristocracy, this would have been a keeper. As it is, it’s a B/B+ for me.
The author’s work intrigues me, and I love the fact that she has a French heroine of disreputable origins, but I get annoyed by anachronisms like the ones you describe, so I might wait until her next book.
Speaking of anachronisms, what’s up with the name “Dahlia”? Was that a name anyone had during the Regency? It seems really late Victorian to me. (Wikipedia tells me that the flower was named after Andreas Dahl in 1791, so I suppose it might barely be likely, depending on what year the book is set and how old that character is, but yeah… I don’t think so.)
I LOVE Elizabeth Kingston but yes, in “A Fallen Lady,” Marie-Anne was totally shunned by the dead fiancee’s parents… I guess I can see the sisters holding some affection for her and calling her to the rescue without the parents’ knowledge?? But that still would not explain the ton’s acceptance.
I might wait until the next EK book as well…
@Joanne Renaud: I was annoyed by it too, but not enough that I didn’t still enjoy the book. I had the same thought about the name Dahlia, though. It is not to be found in this 1816 copy of Debrett’s, so the aristocracy didn’t bestow it on their children, anyhow.
@claudia: The parents knew. The explanation given is that the parents (mother especially) were such snobs that Marie-Anne’s association with the Earl and Countess of Summerdale redeemed her in their eyes. I find it hard to buy, though, given the way young, unmarried women’s reputations were guarded if they were expected to marry well (and in Dahlia’s case, they wanted her to marry a duke). I think it was also stated that the girls looked up to Marie-Anne and the parents thought she might wield influence with them. But again, I don’t see why they would think her influence was a good thing.