I wish I could find something nice to say about this book. The cover information reveals that it is the author's fifth novel, and quoted reviews of her previous works label them "Charming," "Tantalizing," and – most astonishing of all – possessed of "The wittiest dialogue since Emma." None of those qualities are evident in this book.
By Love Undone is a historical novel set in the Regency period. Even those who prefer little historical setting and detail will be disappointed and confused, while those who truly love a good Regency will be horrified. Well-known aspects of fictional Regency life, such as excessive concern with propriety, are invoked or ignored in seemingly random fashion.
For instance, we first meet the heroine, Madeleine (Maddy) Willits, in her capacity as paid companion to an unmarried country gentleman. We later learn that she is the daughter of a viscount, but that she was forced to flee London society and seek employment because she was ruined after being observed receiving an unwanted kiss from a rake. It is never explained why, when a kiss was enough to cast her beyond the pale of sophisticated London society, the – presumably more conservative – denizens of Somerset don't raise an eyebrow at her unchaperoned, four-year sojourn beneath the roof of their unmarried neighbor.
The plot involves the efforts of the hero – who answers to the improbable name of Quinton Ulysses Bancroft, Marquis of Warefield – and nephew of the avuncular gentleman by whom Maddy is employed, to restore Maddy to respectability after first trying to seduce her. The central conceit of their relationship is that Maddy, whose initial ruin is not revealed to the reader until page 117, despises "the nobility" because of it, and refuses to believe that the hero, Quin, could be different.
Several chapters are devoted to slapstick encounters wherein Maddy tries to drive Quin away from his uncle's home. These opening chapters are confusing, chaotic and contain some truly inane dialogue:
"You don't know me," he murmured, meeting her gaze again.
Maddie's persistent hostility seems intended to be amusing, but it is merely aggravating since all of her perceptions are colored by experience of which the reader is, as yet, unaware, and she appears to pay no attention to the man's actual words or behavior.
She held his eyes, still fearless. "And you don't know me."
"I would like to," he said, in a low voice.
"Her mouth opened, and then shut again.
"You--I--" Maddie swallowed.
"Bah," she finally snapped, and turned her back on him.
The characters end up in London, where the plot turns to farce. The Marquis' fiancée supplies the female villainy, in partnership with Maddy's impecunious ex-fiancé. A particularly jarring aspect of the story is that, while the overall tone is lighthearted, several elements of plot and characterization are darker and not well-integrated, leaving the reader wondering why they were included. Quin's father, the duke, calls Maddy a whore and a slut; Maddy and Quin have a nasty fight where they verbally abuse each other and Maddy wields a letter opener; and Quin's fiancée refers to "buggery" and uses the word, "bitch," in polite conversation. Although none of these scenes are particularly graphic, they are surprisingly ugly given the unsophisticated and superficial quality of the narrative.
Overall, I can only characterize this book as feeling computer-generated. Plot elements, character traits, and bits of dialogue seem to have been mixed together willy-nilly without benefit of an organizing and synthesizing consciousness. The story is "historical" only in the sense that a vocabulary list of Regency-era nouns, adjectives, and phrases have been inserted in the appropriate places in the text. Neither the real nor the fictional Regency comes alive in these pages.
As for "The wittiest dialogue since Emma:" the first time the hero and heroine have sex, Quin's passion prompts him to blurt, "Jesus,...You were a virgin." I rest my case.