After reading the book cover copy, I thought this book was going to be fascinating. Have a look at said copy:
Locked away by her reclusive and intensely protective father, the recently deceased “Mad Lord of Northumberland,” Melissa is beautiful and educated but painfully naive about the real world – and the dark secrets of her birth. Now in the care of her uncle, the Earl of Braddock, she must prepare to enter London society and find a proper husband, a task that grows complicated when she falls for the one man she can never have. Just as a promising new life begins to eclipse her tragic past, she'll find herself consumed by a forbidden love that could destroy it all.
A book about a young woman who was educated but never brought out into society, with a menacing lord (or two), a well-meaning uncle, and a secret about herself that she cannot reveal to anyone outside her family would seem like a good mix of intrigue, social drama, and conflict. Unfortunately, in the end, the tension which was built through the book was extinguished too soon and offstage, and any drama fizzled out like the plot was afraid of it. Some things happened. Bigger things were meant to happen, I think, but they didn't. The part I didn't expect to be so fascinating was very enjoyable, but the rest was a letdown.
Melissa, the heroine, is perfect. Perfectly perfect in every adorable way (except for the secret of her birth – she's illegitimate, a fact which no one knows about). She's so perfect she's almost uninteresting, really. And that's quite a feat: she should be very interesting. She's been kept in her rooms at her old home her entire life because her father went a little out of his mind after her mother died, and became convinced that if anyone touched Melissa, she'd get sick and die, too. So everyone handled her with gloves – as in, they wore gloves and never touched her with bare hands, not even her trusty confidante servant.
When her dad dies and her home is sold – to a menacing mad duke who is not the mad lord of the title (who by the way does surprisingly little with the house even though the whole prologue is said duke mentally rubbing his hands together and chuckling with evil glee about having bought it) – her father's brother, the Earl of Braddock, comes to pick her up and take her to his home, bringing with him a suitable chaperone, Miss Diane Stanhope. More on her in a moment.
The Earl of Braddock at some point made a promise to his reclusive brother to look after the even-more-reclusive daughter, Melissa, if anything happened to said reclusive brother, but even with that promise, Braddock has never met the daughter. And of course the daughter is left with a very small inheritance, AND she's not really the brother's kid, so Braddock has his work cut out for him: hide the fact that the pretty but heretofore socially unknown niece is illegitimate, and marry her off as soon as possible so as to keep his promise to his dead brother.
Piece of cake, right?
Like I said, Melissa has never been out of her room since her mother died. Ever. She had dancing lessons, tutoring, and whatnot, wore fashionable clothes and read the latest news, all the while never stepping out of her suite of rooms. So when it comes time for her to put on a coat and go down the stairs to the earl's carriage, she's not even sure how to descend stairs. But she does it after a moment's thought. She's never seen horses or been in a carriage, but whatever, in you go, girlfriend.
This is one point in which I wish more had been made of Melissa's unfamiliarity with just about everything. The new things she encounters sometimes present a large challenge, like touching people or having people touch her, but other things don't seem to surprise her much. I wished I'd read more about the introduction of Melissa to everything outside her bedroom, but sometimes it took a chapter or so, or sometimes it took two sentences.
The chaperone, Miss Stanhope, is relieved that despite the illegitimacy and the weirdness of never leaving her room, Melissa is beautiful, well-educated, and pleasant to be around. She's been living in the historical romance equivalent of a plastic bubble, but Ms. Stanhope thinks that with gradual introductions into larger groups, Melissa will have minimal problems with her entrance into the outside world.
Let me tell you about the good part: the chaperone was one of my favorite characters AND her story was the better romance of the novel. Miss Stanhope is a plain woman who has never married, and is very much a spinster. The earl dances with her at a ball so he can ask her to be his niece's chaperone, and before he starts talking, she allows herself a moment to enjoy being asked to dance by an earl. Miss Stanhope has a bit of a crush on the earl:
As always, when Lord Braddock walked toward her—or even looked at her, for that matter—her heart sped up a notch. She couldn’t stop it any more than she could stop his look of complete boredom.
Miss Stanhope herself is very plain, though Melissa insists she's very pretty (Melissa's known probably 9 women in her life, so her pool of comparison is somewhat limited). But both Melissa and the earl notice that when Miss Stanhope smiles, she's lovely.
Throughout the story, Miss Stanhope's job is to keep Melissa protected, to make sure nothing inappropriate happens, and to ease her entry into society. The earl's job is to introduce her to eligible men who would be happy to have a beautiful young wife and her modest dowry, and so he makes lists and introduces these men to Melissa – hoping that perhaps one might interest her, and vice versa. So the earl's job and Miss Stanhope's job are both complimentary and at odds. She warns the earl about allowing his son so much time alone with Melissa, he tells Miss Stanhope she's being silly, and they both try to expand and limit Melissa's experiences.
The slow, sometimes awkward and sometimes wonderful courtship between the earl and the chaperone was my absolute favorite part. In fact, if you're curious about this book, I'd warn you to not expect too much in the primary romance, but to really savor the secondary romance. The earl has been widowed for a long time and has no interest in marrying again. Miss Stanhope has given up on any hope of courtship for herself, and in her practical manner has accepted her new role as spinster chaperone. But she points out a few times that just because she's older and unmarried does not mean she's a dried out person with no emotions. She hides them, and doesn't tell anyone about them, but she very much wanted to marry and have a family and it's painful to her that her life has not turned out the way she planned.
The earl has little interest in a permanent relationship; Miss Stanhope has no interest in a secret dalliance or affair, because if she did, she would sacrifice the thing she has held onto – her reputation. And she wouldn't be a suitable chaperone, either, (not that the earl thinks of that part).
The earl bumbles and makes some terrible mistakes, and there were times I'd fear Miss Stanhope would never bend enough to acknowledge her feelings, either. For example, let me expand on the quote above and share the scene wherein Miss Stanhope is trying to convince Lord Braddock to go to the opera:
As always, when Lord Braddock walked toward her—or even looked at her, for that matter—her heart sped up a notch. She couldn’t stop it any more than she could stop his look of complete boredom. That thought nearly made her smile, but she stopped herself just in time, because each time she smiled, Braddock gave her the oddest look.
He was a formidable-looking man with broad shoulders and a physique that had yet to show his age. She’d wondered more than once through the years how a man who had to be in his fifth decade could appear so well formed when so many men had gone to fat or were forced to wear girdles to keep their burgeoning stomachs in place. She’d admired him from afar for more years than she’d like to admit and had danced with him only that one time when he’d inquired about her chaperoning Melissa. Still, her heart sped up. Still, she felt like a nervous young girl whenever he walked into a room.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, my lord, but I believe I’ve come up with a good venue to introduce your niece. The Covent Garden Opera House. I was hoping you had a box there?”
Braddock frowned. “Is this something I would have to attend, then?”
“It would be best,” she said. “I take it you don’t like the opera.”
“It’s the people who attend such events I don’t care for,” he said dryly, then frowned even more heavily when Diane laughed outright.
She quickly sobered. “I do believe it would be beneficial to her to make her entrance into society at such an event. Little would be asked of her but to stand beside you and look charming.”
His brows drew together, and Diane couldn’t help thinking that the man would look far more attractive if he actually smiled once in a great while. “Are you worried about her entrance?”
“Yes, I am,” Diane said, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice. “The poor child has been hidden away for nearly two decades with nary a soul to talk to but her father and servants. While she’s been taught how to act and what to say, she has never had the opportunity to put such lessons into practice. I fear if we introduce her into a situation where more interaction is needed, she will find it overwhelming.”
“Has she said as much?”
Diane shook her head. “She has no idea whether she should be or not. She has no experience with society. She may do splendidly, but it would be best to have you there by her side should things go awry.”
He tapped a fist lightly against his chin in thought. “John can go, too,” he said finally. “That would at least make it more palatable for me and perhaps more entertaining for Melissa.”
Diane stared at him, wondering if he knew he’d just insulted her. “I’m sure that would be best,” she said. “And you do have a box?”
“I do, not that I can recall ever sitting in it beyond the grand reopening of the place. Santanella, I believe it was. I fell asleep.”
Again, Diane laughed and suffered that look from Braddock. Really, it was too much. Was she to go around frowning her entire life because some unfortunate feature on her face made him nearly wince in pain each time she smiled?
“Lord Braddock,” she said in her coolest voice. “Is there something about me that offends you?”
The look on his face was so astounded, Diane nearly smiled again. “Offends, Miss Stanhope?”
She could feel her nostrils flare and knew from looking in the mirror that such an expression definitely was not attractive. “Every time I smile, you look as if you’ve swallowed something unpleasant. It is quite disconcerting, and it’s gotten to the point that I take great pains not to smile in front of you. I wish you would either tell me what so offends you or try to ignore whatever it is you find so distasteful.” Despite her resolve to appear stern, Diane was slightly mortified to realize that her throat was beginning to close up, and that if Lord Braddock said a single unkind thing she would likely be unable to utter a sound.
“You think . . .” It was Braddock’s turn to smile, leaving Diane completely confused. It was not at all amusing. Not in the least.
“Miss Stanhope, please let me put your mind at ease. You are not a beautiful woman,” he said. “In fact, most men would probably describe you as rather plain.”
She stood there, his words hitting her like soft blows to the heart. She’d seen it more than once, men who thought that women past a certain age were impervious to hurt. But it wasn’t true; her battered heart was proof enough of that. She schooled her features to show not a single emotion, as he blithely talked about her complete unattractiveness.
As if suddenly realizing what he was saying, the great lummox, he abruptly stopped talking. “I see I am not saying this correctly,” he muttered, then took a deep breath. “When you smile, Miss Stanhope, you become another woman altogether. You must know this is true. It transforms you. When you smile, you become rather”—he stopped, his cheeks going ruddy—“stunning.”
“Oh,” she said, through a throat suddenly gone tight for another reason altogether. “Well. Thank you.” She smiled, then immediately covered her mouth, horribly self-conscious. “Now, I’m afraid, I’ll never be able to smile in front of you.” She’d gone quite red in the face, her eyes twinkling above her hand. Braddock grinned back, as if enjoying her discomfort.
“You mean to say you thought I was offended each time you smiled?”
Diane nodded, feeling foolish. “You did make the oddest expression,” she said, laughing. “The first time I thought I must have something rather horrid stuck between my teeth.”
“The Browning ball,” he said, and Diane couldn’t stop the foolish rush of happiness that he had remembered.
The scenes in which they are paired together for card games or social events were my favorites. I loved how ignorant and boneheaded Braddock could be while trying to explain himself, how unwilling he was to change what he thought of Diane, and how fiercely Diane tried to keep herself from having feelings for him. I loved that the conflict between them rested in part upon who they were, who they had grown into as adults with agency and some degree (obviously varying degrees) of autonomy in society.
Miss Stanhope's social standing affects the earl's house parties, too, in a way that highlighted the social conventions and how a spinster or chaperone is not quite part of the group. If the earl has an even number of young ladies and young men, Miss Stanhope's presence upsets the balance – so she excludes herself even though she'd very much like to join in. She's often an extra in the social party within the book or needed to balance the numbers of women to men, and her story is a secondary one – but it was the reason I kept reading after I'd lost interest in Melissa and …. gracious I'm going to go have to look up the hero's name because I can't remember it.
John! Yeah. Him. He's tortured by how much he likes Melissa, and how uncomfortable he is with the emotions he feels – though he and his father enjoy a very unique man-hugging, close relationship. There are several scenes where they embrace, complete with back slaps and real regard for one another. For two guys who repeatedly profess to not believe in love, they exhibit quite a bit of emotion for one another. They acknowledge familial love is normal, but their effusive hugs and emotional displays toward one another were still surprising to me.
The real let-down was the ending. Everything which drove much of the conflict in the beginning and middle of the book was wrapped up quick and neat, and offscreen. All of the emotions and sympathies that the reader may have built up were left unsatisfied.
The mad duke who was so menacing and evil elaborate lies were concocted to keep him away from two generations of people? He died. It happens in about a paragraph. It was about as satisfying as the Cornwall Scarpetta mysteries where the Very Likely Suspect is introduced in chapter 37 out of 45. He smells like maple syrup? The dead wife's husband thought about pancakes? IT'S THE SYRUP GUY! Too easy, not satisfying, not respectful of the amount of menace and fear built into the duke's character.
The scandal that would surround Melissa if her bastard status was known? Oh, don't worry about that – even though we've worried about it for the whole book because it was a key part of the conflict between the hero and heroine. Her chaperone at one point says something like so-and-so and so-and-so-else will support you, and any scandal will die down or pass eventually.
Oh. So why the ruse and lies and worries that Melissa would have to go through the social onslaught of a full season before finding a husband, increasing the chances her illegitimacy would be known? Why include a painful scene that highlighted how the ton thought of bastards, and gave a glimpse of they were treated? So if so and so and someone else are going to be on her side (never mind that we've never met them in this book), it'll be fine.
And the outrage that the earl's son, both of whom are outspoken critics of the idea of romantic love and emotion, and both of whom have lobbied to outlaw marriages between first cousins, based on friendships and recommendations from some dude named Darwin? Well, they're not really cousins – because Melissa's not the earl's brother's daughter – so it's ok. So back to the scandal about her parentage! Which won't be a scandal after all, we are told, so yay! Happy ending!
The ending was very much one offscreen resolution after another, and I was left feeling as if the plot had patted me on the head and told me not to worry my pretty little head about any of that. It was insulting to my intelligence.
No scenes of Melissa and John weathering scandal, no scenes of anyone refusing to see them, no gossip or hurt feelings, and the scandal that everyone said would happen supposedly won't happen in any great measure because it's (a) in the future and (b) all the people who were worried about are all, “Oh, that? That'll be fine, don't worry. You're in LOVE, and that's what matters!”
There was more attention paid to the (in my opinion) unimportant insistence of the earl and his son that love didn't exist, and the degree to which they had to eat crow when they found themselves in it. I'm all for personal crises and being forced to change one's long-held beliefs, but the hero (and father) who don't believe in love has been done, and it's not dramatic. It's flimsy internal self-conflict.
I really didn't care about Melissa and John, her introduction to the world, and his conflicts about his feelings for her.
But my gosh, I loved the glimpses of the relationship changing between Braddock and Miss Stanhope. They could have been the primary characters and Melissa and John could have been secondary – I'd have loved it. I wish there'd been more of Braddock and Miss Stanhope, and less of the other two, but I'm glad I read it, mostly for the secondary romance.