The trouble with stories wherein one party is betrothed to another is that the jilted person must either be unspeakably awful, or really wonderful but not quite right for the protagonist. It’s a tough balance. Unspeakably awful calls into question the judgment of the protagonist, and you can’t have a reader wondering if the hero or heroine is secretly a complete idiot for having chosen that turnip head in the first place. If the jilted party is pretty spiffy in his or her own right, there’s the risk that their relative spiffyness will cause the protagonist to pale in comparison, or cause the one what does the jilting to look like a complete arse with no moral compass much less a sense of decency or honor.
To my happy pleasure and vexing frustration, despite having had exactly 3.5 hours of sleep the night before, Sherry Thomas’ Delicious kept me reading when I would have loved to have mashed my face against the bulkhead and slept.
There’s a ton of plot summaries out there for this book, so here’s the nutshell. Hot promising lawyer of questionable background gains social esteem, and proposes marriage to lovely woman of excellent connections. Hot lawyer has hot toddy in his past, a woman he cannot forget. Hot toddy woman is now a marvelously seductive chef who invokes epic drama with her chicken broth (we won’t speak of what she can do with chocolate or lemons) and hot lawyer finds himself inheriting house in which hot toddy chef is in residence. Turn up the burner and use a potholder, for God’s sake. You’ll burn yourself at the bathtub scenes if you’re not careful.
What I love about this book is a simple list of three: Place, Past, and Present.
Place: Victorian era = hot hot hot. The Regency will probably have to pretend its Empire waist is now corseted so its behind looks the size of a cruise ship (Victorian fashion can be one big WTF Fiesta) to keep up, because the balance of new technology and creativity in industry against repressed sexual urges in a strict society is just feisty hot.
Past: Thomas has two major skills in her corner and she’s working those skills like she’s beating whipped cream from scratch. She has Mad Word Power like holy crap. (Can I just say that I do try sometimes to make my reviews more quote-worthy? I do. I know how much reviews mean to authors. And I fail like deflated cake. I know quotes help in various arenas but words like “effortless strength of lexicon and prose” or “her story sparkles with wit and words I had to look up” seem pale and butterless in comparison.) Gone are the tired words that are retread in historical after historical. Thomas mixes a fairy tale, a social imbalance, and a knife-sharp grasp of language so well that I was in turns dizzy with the hope for a happy ending, thoughtfully mulling the social problems in that time period and how they reflect current times, and wishing I had learned that word and this word and that one over there because omg words they are like chocolate ginger cookies and I cannot stop at one so someone take the package away from me please.
Present: As I mentioned, Thomas sets up a smart weave of fiction and fact, setting Verity and Stuart against the class wars, the changing of the social guard, and the horrible facts of what happens to people who don’t have those almighty powerful connections to help them. Even when Thomas revealed a painful fate for a character, another character’s moral goodness and efforts to help soothed the sharp despair I felt. I cared about ancillary characters who were told in backstory, and who weren’t part of the narrative, and I was impressed with the nuanced portrayal of all the characters who were both generous and rigid, spiteful and deeply caring – in other words, human. They were flawed, they made decisions that were unattractive and deviated severely from the norm of heroine and hero in romance fiction.
What stopped this book from being an outright A – because nothing makes me a happy Sarah than a book’s meal of smart writing, sharp words, and deft storytelling – is that by invoking a fairy tale, the ending, which I won’t give away, came across as too over-the-top, too impossible, too completely cotton candy fairy tale sparkly glitter happy ending with a wave of a magic personality switching wand, that I couldn’t entirely trust it. Based on the suppositions of the hero of what he might be able to do, and the brusque assurances of a character whose turnabout was moments from the finale, I wasn’t entirely confident of the ending, and was cautiously optimistic instead of assured and happy myself.
I am, however, pleased that I persevered from the moment in reading the book when I wondered how on earth all these problems would work out by the end of the story, because I loved Stuart, his restrained passion and attempts to remake himself. I loved that there were real regrets in the story that weren’t going to be solved, and I loved that Verity, though flawed, tried to remain true to herself as much as possible, recognizing that her own mistakes weren’t necessarily going to doom everyone around her as much as she’d thought.
Most of all, I loved the writing. I love being told a story in layered language that reflects the careful layering of the narrative itself.