I enjoy Zoe Archer's writing, so when she said she'd published one of her early novels, Lady X's Cowboy, I grabbed it and started reading nearly immediately. While it does have some innovative elements to the plot, the unevenness of the characterization and conflict undermines the overall effect of the story.
First, contrast the re-release cover on the left with the original Dorchester cover here:
Quite a difference, huh? I confess to liking the re-release cover a LOT more than the original, which could take place at any location or time period. Also, why is she resting her head in the shrubbery?
Anyway. Lady X is Lady Xavier, a widow whose late husband left her the family brewery. Her husband was a more recent addition to high society, and his title was not inherited. After his death, Lady X learned everything she could about the brewery, and is now running it, determined to make the business a success. She had little interest in the role assigned to her as a widow:
Once Olivia left off her two years of deep mourning, everyone had an opinion as to how she should spend her time. Her parents urged her to move in with them and pursue a life of quiet emptiness and widowhood. Her friends wanted her to attend parties, operas, and outings. And society bulwarks such as Prudence wanted her to fill her days with useless, time-consuming charity work that produced little gain for those who actually needed it most.
So during her time in mourning, she made good use of her considerable intellect:
“I knew that, in addition to my settlement, David had left me a brewery. So I began to read about them when no one was around. I had a good deal of time, so I read everything I could about the history, the latest technology, trade publications, all of it. When the time came that I could leave off my mourning, I had resolved to take a struggling little brewery and turn it into something profitable.”
Olivia has made the brewery very successful, and this has put her in an odd location socially. She's a businesswoman…with a title. She's wealthy enough (by far) to be a part of high society, but her behavior is suspect, and she's aware of it. But she's chosen a life that involves the challenges of business rather than what she considers idleness, even if it puts her in an awkward, slightly out of bounds position with her friends.
The problem with Olivia's position on the edge of acceptability is that she stays there. What is established early slightly as a source of conflict between her and everyone she knows in London doesn't develop beyond Olivia knowing it's a problem for her, but still wanting to do what she chooses. The solution comes about very easily, and is very easy to predict, lessening the impact of that social and interpersonal conflict.
When the story opens, Olivia is waiting for her coach outside the brewery when she's accosted first by Prudence, who represents all of society's censure in this story, then by men who clearly mean to do her some harm. The hero, Will, appears out of nowhere and while he doesn't beat down Prudence, he administers a righteous ass whupping to the men who have been hired to intimidate Olivia, before introducing himself and making sure she's unharmed.
His accent and manner of speaking cause Olivia to realize that he's from the American west, and given her predilection for novels featuring cowboys and damsels who are more than too stupid to live, she's fascinated by Will. They part ways but she cannot stop thinking about him, and within a few days tracks him down to the very shabby rooming house he's living in and invites him to stay with her – knowing that this is highly improper but unable to resist.
Will is in London looking for his family. He was raised by an older man out west after his parents died, and never knew much about his heritage. He has a letter as proof of his origins, and has come to London to try to find the rest of his family. Will's search and the man trying to intimidate Olivia over her brewery are the two main external conflicts of the story, while their attraction to one another and the social and economic boundaries it crosses form the rest.
I loved the irregularities of the plot: an English lady hooking up with a cowboy in London? Whoa. A young woman who turns a struggling brewery into a successful enterprise even though doing so was improper and socially questionable: interesting! A young man who has a clearly demonstrated moral code of honor that he acts upon with some regularity? Interesting, too.
But by the end of the book, the novel as a whole didn't work for me because after the initial complexity of the situation and the setting, the characters and the forces working against them became overly simple.
For example: Will was a character I struggled with. I empathized with Olivia and found her to be much better developed, more varied and layered. Will became a cliche. During the course of the book, Will reveals many surprises about himself, and several of them seemed like opportunities to resolve the disadvantage WIll has when with Olivia. He is not as wealthy as Olivia and has no social training — but no worries, he can fight and knows strategy. He has value and worth because of his code of honor, and is more honorable than the men Olivia knows in the ton, but he is younger and less fluent in social customs, so she navigates much of her world for him.
That contrasting point is made over and over until the moments when Will reveals the unexpected depths of his knowledge and strength of his noble character became cliche after awhile. He comes dangerously close to being a magic Mary sue cowboy. Or would he be a magic Marty Stu? Either way, it's tiresome. He's blown away by her beauty, and uses some truly eye popping purple descriptions to himself when he thinks of her, but aloud his dialogue is simple and plain… until it's time to reveal his hidden talented depths. Will is astonished by her talents, except that he has them, too. Will dispatches the bad guys with relative ease, charms some of the locals, and can do few things wrong if any – he's Olivia's magical solution to everything, including her boredom. But Will doesn't change much in the story. Things change around Will, and things change that affect Will and determine who he is in the eyes of other people, but Will himself doesn't change. Sometimes he's there to reveal Olivia's prejudices to her, and other times he's there to save the day.
Plus, the villain of the story is so ridiculous. He wants the brewery because he wants it. Even Olivia has identified him as a spoiled child, and he hires thugs to victimize her, but even though everyone knows he's an ass, he continues. He has no other motivation other than greed and temper. There's no real cunning or intelligence to the villain. He's very much a one-note character.
Other parts of the story's conflict are also embodied by just one character. Social censure visits her in the form of Prudence, who comes over to tell Olivia how horrible she is a few different times in the story, but because we never see Prudence with anyone else, it's hard to determine exactly how much social power Prudence has, or if her threats against Olivia carry any weight whatsoever. There's the sympathetic friend of Olivia who represents the people in society who like Olivia but are struggling to overlook or resolve their feelings about Olivia's behavior. Too many ancillary characters play plot roles instead of being people.
And as I mentioned, I could see the ending miles away, and knew what was going to happen long before it did. I wondered why Olivia hadn't arrived at the same conclusion and solution for herself earlier.
I liked Olivia and had a great deal of empathy for her. She was an elegant and determined woman with a great deal of intellectual energy who felt limited by the social options ascribed to her as a widow. She struggled in the story to reconcile her feelings about the brewery, about her position, about Will, and the challenges in front of her were not insignificant. But the simplicity and lack of depth I found in the other characters overshadowed my enjoyment of the heroine's story.