One of my favorite historical romances is “The Duke and I” by Julia Quinn, which started the Bridgerton series. I love that book. If I go near it, I lose two hours because I will reread it again for the three hundred and forty-seventh time. I love the friendly style of the writing, the warmth of the family – and have mercy, the depiction of a sane and loving mother and a family that actually likes one another.
So when I learned that Julia Quinn’s next book was about the Smythe-Smith family, hosts of the infamously bad musicale from the Bridgerton series, I was curious.
Honoria Smythe-Smith is lonely, as her older siblings have all married and moved on, and her house is silent and not as fun as it was when she was a child. Her next oldest sibling, Daniel, left England in disgrace some years back. Honoria’s mother is depressed about it, and Honoria would really very much like to get married and have a family of her own. She misses having a family around her – a loud, vivacious family.
I liked that about Honoria: she wanted to get married and have a family. She wasn’t an iconoclast, looking to thumb her nose at tradition. She doesn’t want to marry just anyone, either. She is looking for someone who would be a good match for her, and is trying not to be desperate or unseemly. But she wants a family because that is something truly, deeply valuable to her.
In the opening chapter (not the prologue), Honoria is stuck across the street from her shopping companions because a downpour has trapped them in a wonderful store while Honoria is stuck under an awning waiting for the rain to stop. A carriage pulls up and – hello, there – it’s Marcus Holroyd (not a name I advise saying out loud to yourself because it sounds rather like another kind of ‘roid), her exiled brother’s best friend, and one of her favorite people.
Marcus and Honoria have known each other since they were children. In the prologue, the reader learns that Marcus had a very lonely childhood until he went to school, where he had the good fortune to be Daniel’s roommate. Daniel was charming and comfortable with large, loud groups of children, so through Daniel, Marcus found friends, and, because he started to visit Daniel’s home, an extended family.
Because Marcus doesn’t have a family, he values his connection to Daniel’s family higher than just about anything in his life. He also has to uphold a promise he made to Daniel before Daniel left England, and as a result has been watching out for Honoria over the past few years as best he could.
Now. If you like intense conflict, this is not the book for you. If you like angst, this is not the book for you. If you like large scale events and much arrival of the drama, with dark and painful emotions, this is not the book for you.
This is a friends to lovers story that is quiet and sweet, lyrical and at times very touching, without a great deal of sharp conflict. It is friendly and warm, and the conflict between Marcus and Honoria is not so much “if” or “how” but “when” and “will it be satisfying.” Marcus and Honoria share a love of sweets that is so adorable it’ll make your teeth hurt, and they know each other very well – except haven’t realized how well they suit.
Marcus was shy. His shyness informs everything he does before the story and afterward, but he does not change much in the story. In fact, one of the themes revolving about Marcus is about how shyness can be mistaken for anger or hostility. But he has a few steady influences in his life, and the Smythe-Smith family is one of them.
So he doesn’t look too closely at his own feelings about Honoria, even those that might be motivating his dedication to watching over her while Daniel is away. Marcus’ desire for Honoria isn’t just carnal or overwhelmingly hot so he throws all propriety out the terrace doors and flings her down on the settee in a fit of ranging hornypants. His desire and feelings sneak up on him, almost. They terrify him as well, because if he screws up he will lose his adopted family and one his closest friends. There is a chasteness to his feelings for Honoria, because they were friends for so long, and he holds her in such esteem that he is almost embarrassed by his own sexual feelings for her – so when the sexuality entered the story, I totally blushed a bit.
The plot is actually very simple and straightforward. Honoria and some friends plan a house party with eligible bachelors as the invited guests. Marcus is invited, and Honoria begs him not to come because he won’t like it and she’ll feel guilty for having subjected him to something that will make him miserable. Marcus conveniently has a neighboring estate, so he decides to place himself nearby so that he might stumble upon the house party members and figure out who among them Honoria might be interested in as husband material. And of course nothing goes as planned.
Marcus gets caught in a trap of Honoria’s making, and finds himself in a very precarious position health-wise, prompting Honoria and her mother to intervene in a touching but somewhat socially inappropriate manner. This part of the story was meant to be the turning point, I think, for Marcus and Honoria, where they are forced to confront the feelings they’ve been avoiding or deliberately misinterpreting, but my gosh, was it long. LOOOONG. I wanted more musicale, less medical.
The problem I’m having writing this review is that due to the lack of real conflict between them, I don’t remember much of the specifics of the story, aside from when Marcus is ill and when Honoria is fighting with her cousins about musicale rehearsal (get ready, also, for a few other Smythe-Smith females to start marrying off in future books. Iris, in particular, sounds like a very clever character.)
Much of the book is focused on Marcus, who doesn’t change much. He’s a perfect example of the emotionally gooey yet outwardly taciturn hero that Quinn writes so well. Honoria doesn’t change much either, except to recognize the same tricky emotions Marcus must face. We do learn a bit of the history behind the Smythe-Smith musicale, and the reason it has value for those who treasure it – and why it continues despite being admittedly awful. The musicale serves as the center of the story – not just for Marcus and Honoria, but for future couples as well, I think, because it is through the musicale and the characters’ connection to (and feelings about) it that we learn the most about them. Slaughtering Mozart makes for some very funny dialogue, let me tell you.
At heart, this book is about two characters who want to have a family, and are not sure they’re going to be able to attain one for themselves. They come from very different upbringings, but both of them value and understand the concept, the trouble, and the reward of being part of a family, however family is defined. Ultimately, they have to figure out if they can be each other’s family.
I read this book looking for a warm and happy escape into historical land. Nothing tragically wrenching was going to happen. No one was going to go after my heart, rip it out of my chest and flip it around a few times before wrapping it up in a happy ending that would make me half-cry with relief.
I liked this book, yet I am struggling to describe it because I know there are different types of historical readers out there, and this book won’t appeal to everyone. As I said, if you like a lot of meat in your historicals, you’re not going to like this one. Just Like Heaven is a fizzy confection, pleasant and enjoyed in one sitting. If you think about it too much, it goes a bit flat, like mineral water at room temperature. It was warm and pleasant and funny – there are a few scenes where I laughed out loud, provoking odd glances on the train – but not filled with a great deal of turmoil, which lends, I believe, to the airy, pleasant feeling of it. There’s no great, wide gulf of personal risk for the characters, and there’s not a great personal risk to the reader, either.