Beguiling the Beauty is a late Victorian era romance that meets my geek criteria because of its use of science, specifically the study of fossils and the rise of evolutionary biology. My husband is an evolutionary biologist, so needless to say I was thrilled when I found out that Sherry Thomas' new book has an evolutionary biologist hero. I'm a huge Sherry Thomas fan and this book did not disappoint. In fact, it is by far my favorite book of hers, in no small part because it features the line, “Thank you for dinner. And thank you for the pleasure of the tetrapodichnites”.
I'm trying to avoid gratuitous spoilers, but if you are super spoiler-phobic, you should stop reading this review and just start reading the book. It's great and you'll love it. For the rest of you, MILD SPOILERS AHEAD:
Christian, the Duke of Lexington, becomes obsessed with the gorgeous Venetia Easterbrook at first sight, but she is married, and he is not a stalker, so he avoids her and tries to move on. Later he runs into her husband, who says nasty things about Venetia before committing suicide. Venetia re-marries and that husband dies as well. So, Christian concludes that Venetia is a vacuous gold-digger and he says horrible things about her at a lecture, using her story as an example of his theories on beauty and evolution. Little does he know that Venetia is in the audience, and she is PISSED. Cue revenge seduction – on a luxury liner. In 1896. In disguise. With witty banter about fossils and all this emotional intimacy, and…
…Oh, sorry, I was swooning.
This book features many tropes I normally hate, but it either turns the tropes around, or uses them so skillfully, that I loved it anyway. Early on I was afraid that Christian was a total jerkass and possibly sort of psycho, but really he's a great, though flawed, hero. Christian's huge jackass moment is when he talks smack about poor Venetia in public, but there are some mitigating factors.
First all, Christian, who is British, blurted out all this poisonous crap about Venetia at a lecture (Lamarck and Darwin: Who Was Right?) in America. He is horrified at his indiscretion after the fact, but he had no idea any one he knew was there, and since he never mentioned her name, he thought maybe no harm would be done. His instant obsession thing is kind of creepy, but I have to admit that I have never understood the “Adoration at First Sight” trope. I will say that if you are going to use the trope, Beguiling is a great example of how to make it work. He knows nothing about Venetia except how she looks, and his assumptions are upended repeatedly.
Venetia is a wonderful character, smart, funny, loyal to her sisters, but she also has several moments of wanting to explain everything and then stopping herself. Seriously, if she weren't so beset by tragedy already I would have smacked her. The Big Misunderstanding trope is always annoying to me and I knocked the book down to an A- because the whole thing could have been wrapped up if Venetia would just explain herself.
I can't even sum up why this book is so great. There's lush, gorgeous language, interesting people, tragedy, comedy, veils, parasols, mysterious accents, blindfolds, great food, gorgeous people, gorgeous clothes, museums, fossils, an ocean liner, character development, bitterness, tenderness, an awesome stepmother, long conversations, hot sex, and an underlying belief in the basic goodness of people. The only problem I have other than the Big Mis theme is that so much loving care is put into establishing the conflict between the main characters that the resolution seems too abrupt. I've had the same problem with Thomas's other novels – she just too damn good at setting up conflict. The resolution was satisfying; it just felt a little rushed.
Incidentally, I feel quite smugly nerdy at this moment because the real-life paleontologist, Mary Anning, is referred to in Beguiling and I had just finished reading a biography of her when I picked up Beguiling. If you're interested, the title is: The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. It's by Shelley Emling. ( A | BN | K | S)
The biography was interesting, but also frustrating because it was full of speculation. Seriously, if you took a drink every time the author says, “She must have…” or “She may have…” you'd be dead by the end of the first chapter. I appreciated that at least the biographer was forthright about the lack of actual facts at hand, but I wondered why she didn't just write a work of historical fiction. Lo and behold, within a week I stumbled on Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier, completely by accident ( A | BN | K | S). It was a huge change of pace from what I normally read, being very slow-paced and not romantic in nature, but it is beautifully written. Of course it takes liberties with the facts. For instance, Mary was never caught in a landslide, although her dog was, with her just a couple of feet away. But I do recommend it if you don't mind something thoughtful and slow-paced.
Trivia – Mary Anning's father tried to sell Jane Austen a curio cabinet, but Jane complained that it was over-priced. The More You Know.