I loved 80% of this book. I loved that Dahl took a risk with a character who wasn’t what she seemed, who was a walking con artist, who fooled people who adored her, but still allowed that character to be likeable and brave and clever. I loved that Dahl played with the idea of identity in a society where one’s status is largely based on fiat, where if everyone agrees you are who you say you are, you’re either golden or gone. I loved that in addition to embracing that wicked virgin widow trope, Dahl also explored the freedom of women who were widowed, and what that meant for a woman who could drink, gamble, smoke, take lovers, and generally get away with damn near anything she wanted, within reason – so long as the fiat of her identity held. And I loved that the character was so brave, and so afraid, so very very unconventional and yet in essence so simple to understand that I rooted for her no matter what guise she was in.
I also had a joyous time because hero-trying-to-resist is one of my favorite constructs ever. I call it, “I can’t stop thinking about your hair, dammit” and I could read it and dream about it for hours without stop. I loved that Hart was my favorite character from Dahl’s first novel, and I was so fascinated by a duke who would stand up for his ruined sister against anyone – hello, fiat again – who was perfectly happy to be dissolute when he wanted to, but whose moral core stood with his family, full stop, so any additional words against his sister would be met with a big hammy fist in your pompus face. Hart, he doesn’t pity the fool.
The book developed like a fascinating game of what-if: what if a woman could make her way into society in the off-season by assuming a connection to a family so scattered and fractured across the country that one person’s say-so was good enough for the rest? What if a heroine showed open and deliberate ambition for money, and demonstrated a knowing appreciation for sex despite a deeper-set fear of it? What if erotic elements were introduced to a historical romance, like bondage, domination, submission, and role playing, without those elements taking over the entire story? And what if the hero was really yummy, too?
I was flying through this story when I read it, and I can tell you where I was (the NJ Transit train in the Jersey wetlands) and what I was doing (crying) when the story fractured for me. I was so happy with so much of it, and the last tenth of it, the wrapping up of the ending and the explanation of past trauma, was so crushing that I was left despondent while the characters went off and embraced each other and their happy ending. Obviously I don’t want to give away the finale, but I’ve had a very, very difficult time getting one image out of my head, and that image is so painful that it’s spectre haunts the happily-ever-after and causes me to doubt the provenance of it, and, I know this is silly, causes me to resent the heroine for unloading that painful story on me so that I could deal with the fallout while she goes and boinks Hart into epilogues of sunsets and sparkly happiness. The resolution of the mystery within the story was a little too pat, and too easily blamed on a stock character who I wish had demonstrated more nuance, especially next to the multi-dimensional hero and heroine. And the “Why are you so sad?” “Oh, fine I’ll tell you!” Therapy Ending just about sent me over the edge when I read the final pages. Their happy ending came at a cost for me as a reader and I wish I didn’t have to pay it.
That said, there is no doubt that Dahl wields some serious talent, both in her use of imagery (Janet quoted one scene I read at least three times to re-experience its art) and her development of fascinating characters who grab you by the chin and yell, “Pay attention! I’m different and I’m awesome!” Too often I find myself reading historical romance characters that I can classify as ‘Yet-Another’ : yet another ingenue, yet another tortured rake, yet another drunken abusive parent. Dahl demonstrates her familiarity with historical tropes and the confidence and skill to play with them in such a manner that her name is one I’ll recognize and gravitate to every time I see it on a bookshelf. Even if the heroine ripped my heart out and handed it to me, and even if I was pissed as hell at the heroine for doing so, I have to give Dahl credit: she made me feel heights of benevolent pleasure for the protagonists, and agony over their pasts. To borrow a phrase from the esteemed theologians All 4 One, “She’s got skills. Makes me wanna scooby-doo.”