This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by Pam G. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Historical Romance category.
Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix himself almost believes this golden image. But underneath is a damaged soul soothed only by public adulation.
Louisa Cantwell needs to marry well to support her sisters. She does not, however, want Lord Wrenworth—though he seems inexplicably interested in her. She mistrusts his outward perfection and the praise he garners everywhere he goes.But when he is the only man to propose at the end of the London season, she reluctantly accepts.
Louisa does not understand her husband's mysterious purposes, but she cannot deny the pleasure her body takes in his touch. Nor can she deny the pull this magnetic man exerts upon her. But does she dare to fall in love with a man so full of dark secrets, anyone of which could devastate her, if she were to get any closer?
And here is Pam G.'s review:
This review has been extremely hard for me to write. I've read several of Sherry Thomas's novels, loved them, and planned to dole out the rest to myself at intervals when I needed a treat. I was happy to review The Luckiest Lady in London and expected it to be an uninterrupted gush. Unfortunately, though the book was a delight to read, it was a beast to review. Part of the problem was the necessity of assigning a grade to the book. I've elected to give it an A, because that best expresses my personal response to it. My face creaked with all the smiling I did as I read it, and I definitely made some Good Book Noise™ there at the end. However, though my reaction to the book was overwhelmingly positive, there are elements in the novel that might well be the anti-catnip for some readers, and I have to acknowledge them if this review is to be useful.
First of all, I am a slut for good writing, and Sherry Thomas is my favorite among favorites in this area. There is just something so clean, controlled, and precise in her use of language. Even her prepositions are perfect. That is not to imply that her writing is stodgy or overly formal. Her descriptions are sumptuous without being wordy, she uses imagery and metaphor like a poet, and her work never seems to contain any repetitive verbal junk. In addition to the superior use of language, the novel features beautiful structure, sophisticated characterization, and truly outstanding dialogue. I used the bookmarking capability of my Kindle for the first time with this book and, with great difficulty managed to refrain from highlighting entire chapters.
The storyline of The Luckiest Lady in London is deceptively simple. Prospective readers will need to ignore the cover copy as it is kind of misleading if not downright deceitful. Felix does not believe his own PR and Louisa definitely wants Felix, though perhaps not as a potential husband. “Dark secrets” makes it sound like an old-fashioned Gothic romance and it just isn’t. Standard clichés don’t do the complexity of this novel any justice. True, the plot is relatively ordinary. Poor girl has one season to marry well in order to assist her family; wealthy, high-ranking rake is inexplicably taken with poor girl, and yada yada yada…. Simple, yes, but never pedestrian. In Thomas’s hands, this common-or-garden plot surprises the reader over and over again.
Among other qualities, this novel is distinguished by a very tight focus on the central couple. There are no alarums and excursions. Most of the action takes place in drawing rooms, ballrooms, and bedrooms. There are few external excitements to distract from the internal life of the hero and heroine. Nor are there any drama filled subplots to distract the reader either. While each of the peripheral characters is perfectly rendered in a few well-chosen keystrokes, there really is no in-depth development for any of them. For readers who love a large cast of supporting characters, this may be a turn off. On the other hand, nor are there any stereotyped villains, mean girls, BFFs, bumbling lordlings, haughty dowagers etc. Felix is the hero and the villain. Louisa is the heroine and the goddess of retribution. Depth is reserved for the protagonists, and the layers of personality are peeled back and examined bit by bit throughout the novel.
The novel opens with a prologue, a flashback to the hero's painful formative years. Prologues tend to be annoying and reading about some clown's tragic childhood generally irritates me. Yet Thomas describes Felix's youth with a fine restraint. The abuse he suffers is subtle rather than blatant, and the closing off of his emotions seems an almost logical reaction. Though Thomas mostly uses the now standard third person limited POV, alternating between the hero's and heroine's perspectives, she maintains a narrative distance more common to omniscient POV. This quality renders her use of the prologue less emotionally manipulative. She also gives her heroine equal time in chapter one, so it’s not all about the hero’s childish angst. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the prologue is the ending, when the POV becomes totally omniscient:
Little could he guess that at twenty-eight he would marry, out of the blue, a lady who was quite some years removed from seventeen, neither naive nor plump-chested, and who examined the ground on which he trod with a most suspicious eye, seeing villainy in everything he said and did.
What makes this so interesting is the way it restructures the novel. We know that Louisa and Felix will marry before the first chapter opens. This novel is not about a conventional courtship. The reader is free to concentrate on the details of their interactions without anxiety over whether these details further the mating dance.
Felix and Louisa are hyperaware of one another from their first meeting. Louisa is immediately attracted to Felix and immediately convinced that he has penetrated her guise of ideal prospective society wife. Felix's awareness of Louisa mirrors and reverses hers. He believes that she recognizes the corrupt individual beneath the Ideal Gentleman and finds her bewitching because he needs deceive her. Felix and Louisa are such an enjoyable couple because they totally get each other in ways that no one else ever has. Though they seem to function beautifully in society, in fact, they are emotionally isolated. These two people are deeply disguised and yet recognize one another from the beginning of their relationship. However, their understanding is distorted by the fear-driven masks that they have assumed; as a result, recognition does not lead to transparency. On his wedding day Felix acknowledges both his understanding and his mystification with his unexpected bride.
“Everything I need to know about you, I already learned the first night we met. And yet after I've read you like an open book all this while, you still remain something of a conundrum.
Though she marries him and wants him physically, Louisa is not blinded by Felix’s shiny veneer either, and she is justifiably suspicious of his motives. The reader knows that they are meant for each other, knows that they will marry and knows that they will screw it up. Herein lies the narrative tension and suspense and, for me, the sweet smell of catnip.
The first 40% of the novel is occupied with Felix's pursuit of Louisa. Louisa, though extremely attracted to Felix, is adamant in her determination to secure a prosperous and complaisant husband who will extend his protection to her entire family, but most of all to her youngest sister who is epileptic. She has major obstacles to contend with in reaching her goals.
Such was the fate of a pretty but penniless young lady–gentlemen still liked to look at her and even spend time with her. But they lacked the courage to marry her, not when a better-dowered wife could put lobsters on the menu and ensure that they need never descend a rung or two from their accustomed place in the world.
Felix, on the other hand, is equally determined to conquer Louisa at any cost, nor is he shy about sharing his intention to make her his mistress. Both of them are delightfully blunt in their dealings, and the resulting dialog is superb and hilarious. Louisa meets Felix's attempts to put her to the blush with disconcerting frankness. Their interactions resembled tennis with grenades. When Felix finally proposes marriage, it is impossible to say who is more shocked, Louisa, Felix, or the reader. (And you knew up front they were getting married too!)
The wittiness of the repartee between Louisa and Felix is matched by its hotness. The sexual tension escalates throughout the first half of the book without reference to insta-boners or other crudities. Thomas elevates the double entendre to an art form, and I will never look at my husband's cane collection in the same way again. Restraint both in the writing and in the protagonist's behavior enhances the ratcheting intensity of their passion. Neither is responding to generic lust; they are responding to each other. On their wedding night, Felix contemplates his bride.
He, on the other hand, watched only her face. The size of her breasts was quite irrelevant–what excited him was the transparency of her desire, the depth of her hunger, and the thoroughness of her infatuation.
Once consummated, the relationship continues to be hot, though it becomes much more complicated. Long after the honeymoon has ended, Felix is forced to acknowledge the limitations of passion as well.
As much as he pleased her in bed and as much as she couldn't seem to get enough of him, like a racetrack, the bed was a closed venue. All the distances covered, all the thunderous finishes, and still they were in the exact same place as before.
Marriage is not an afterthought. It is vital, changing but never diminishing the import of sexual passion. It is also a major vehicle for emotional growth. The real story of Felix and Louisa's relationship develops in their marriage, with all its difficulties.
In among those earlier verbal grenades, Felix has planted some time bombs, the kind with shrapnel to bite him in the butt. And herein lies the reason that some readers may not love this novel. Felix really is pretty rotten, not in a broody alphole style, but in more of a smug, deceitful asshat manner. He understands and appreciates Louisa as no one else does, yet his fears trigger acts of inexcusable cruelty. He recognizes his fear, yet it still overcomes him.
All along, the saner parts of himself had been issuing warnings that it was a terrible idea to fixate on this girl. And all along, doltishly preoccupied with her, he had ignored all the danger signals.
While telling himself that he was only after a bit of perverse fun, as if Captain Ahab had somehow come to the belief that he was only a recreational angler, even as he pursued his obsession all over the seven seas, a harpoon at the ready.
At more than one point the reader will want to reach into the pages and beat the crap out of Felix. After the initial piece of cruelty, the relationship recovers in a superficial manner, but, later on, another time bomb explodes and demolishes the fragile understanding they manage to reconstruct. Though Louisa has always recognized that Felix is not a good guy, the deception she ultimately discovers is far beyond what her own sense of honor and responsibility can accept. The combination of Felix's smirky golden boy persona and his truly vicious actions in pursuit of Louisa makes him pretty unlikable to the reader as well. Nor is the situation resolved with a blatant and extended grovel. There is slow growth and a gradual series of realizations that lead Felix to a pivotal revelation about the nature of love, followed by a deliberate effort to behave according to his new understanding. I will spare you any spoilers, but the individual reader will have to determine whether this turning point and his subsequent actions are sufficient to rehabilitate Felix.
One of the things that Felix and Louisa share is not fully revealed between them until after their marriage, though the reader has seen several hints that each has a strong interest in the stars. Yes, there is secret geekitude to further tickle your catnip cravings. The sharing of interests is fun to read about, but also works symbolically and as an element of the romance.
If he were actually someone hired to tutor her, Louisa would have been doomed. The purposeful, fluid movements of his wrist as his chalk dashed across the blackboard held her rapt. His perfect freehand circles and parabolas sent frissons of pleasure through her. The talk of quadratic equations, matrices, and inverse functions were so much erotic poetry that set her belly aflutter. And if he even so much as hinted at trigonometry, well, she burned.
I loved Louisa, and, though she berated herself for her masquerade, her behavior was that of any aspirant to a prosperous society marriage; the only thing notable about her actions was her exceptional social success. She is so incredibly efficient in pursuit of her goals, so strong in her determination to do what is necessary for her sisters. Her intelligence, her wit, her sexual honesty, her courage, and her sense of honor make her both admirable and entertaining. Unlike Felix, she is a grown-up from page one. It's easier to focus on vice than on virtue, so Felix may seem to get more attention, but Louisa is convincingly kickass in response to Felix's asshattery. Her reluctance to forgive or to trust is completely justified, but has the potential to obstruct her future happiness. Forgiveness eventually works but only when it is a deliberate informed choice, perhaps not perfectly earned but given freely.
Though the character of the (somewhat anti-) hero and the narrow focus on the emotional life of Felix and Louisa may be off-putting for some readers, it worked perfectly for me. I embraced the ah-ha moment that turns Felix around, because the truth he recognizes is one of the most profound defining aspects of love.
The thing about HEAs is that they are always speculative. True love does not cure asshattery. Nor does saying three magic words automatically heal a lifetime of damage. Louisa chooses to forgive Felix at this moment, but the reader may be skeptical about their ability to avoid or survive emotional C4 in the future. Hope comes from the feeling, established from the very beginning, that these two individuals fit so perfectly, get each other so well, and need someone to see them as only the other one can. And that’s what worked for me.