|The last time I reviewed a Lisa Kleypas novel, I said that it was a good book with a bad ending. This, on the other hand, has a long, annoying beginning but a very satisfying conclusion. I really wish Ms. Kleypas would go back to writing books that are enjoyable all the way through.
Annabelle Peyton is determined to solve her family’s dire financial straights by marrying well. It can’t be just anyone with money though; Annabelle insists on marrying someone she considers her social equal. Nothing less than a peer will do. There’s just one problem. Although Annabelle is a girl of beauty and wit, she has no dowry, and “no one wants to marry a girl with no dowry.”
In fact, Annabelle’s lack of dowry has meant that she’s been a wallflower for all four of her unsuccessful Seasons (since English aristocrats only dance with beautiful, witty girls they intend to marry). Annabelle’s sense of desperation is increased by the fact that some male members of the class she reveres have made it clear that they are waiting for her financial circumstances to become so desperate that she will consider offers less savory than matrimony.
One of these is Simon Hunt, a “filthy rich entrepreneur” who happens to be the son of the very butcher the Peyton’s patronize (in every sense of the word). After a single scorching kiss several years ago, Simon has carried a torch for Annabelle. He has asked her to dance at every ball they’ve both attended since. Annabelle can’t believe this churlish son of a butcher is invited to mix with his betters and scorns him, every time, in no uncertain terms.
Now, with her younger brother’s school fees unpaid and her widowed mother entertaining the obnoxious Lord Hodgeham to pay the bills, Annabelle joins forces with three other wallflowers who vow to help each other find husbands. In spite of their status as undesirables, they finagle invitations to a house party in Hampshire given by the “most accomplished host of the peerage.” There, they intend to “entrap an unsuspecting gentleman into marriage” with Annabelle by luring him into a compromising situation.
Nothing much happens in the first third of this book, which is mostly lead-up to the husband entrapment scheme. Unfortunately, this means that the reader has nothing much to do except examine the characters of the ‘hero’ and ‘heroine.’ In the case of Annabelle, this led to a sneaking suspicion that maybe she isn’t a wallflower because she’s poor. Maybe it’s because she’s a shallow, pretentious, ill-mannered cow. Just a thought.
And Simon didn’t come off much better, circling like a shark smelling blood in the water, waiting for Annabelle’s situation to become so dire that she’d be grateful to become his mistress. Equally frustrating, the source of his feelings for Annabelle are manifestly unclear. Why was he fascinated by this rude snob? Frankly, for a significant portion of the book, neither were people I found myself wanting to spend time with.
On the plus side, the book does an about-face around the halfway mark. Although the changes are very abrupt and not well explained, the transformation of the two main characters was highly welcome. A more gradual, fully realized transition would have been much more satisfying and certainly would have improved the story, but I was extremely grateful that the characters became more sympathetic and likable.
Of one thing I can assure you unreservedly. No matter how contrived the plot, Ms. Kleypas has not lost her touch with a sex scene. When these two get together, they burn up the pages, and the author eventually managed to make their relationship highly romantic to me, as well as sexy, so the second half of the book was a huge improvement. No mean feat, given how badly I wanted to choke these characters senseless in the early chapters.
Don’t misunderstand. I am unreservedly in favor of character growth. Seeing how imperfect people come to terms with their flaws in order to deserve lasting love is one of the great pleasures of romance. But making a character insufferable for half the book and then waving a magic wand over them and exclaiming “problem solved” is not character growth, it’s a cop out. No matter how much fun the second half of the book might be.
-- Judi McKee