I came close to crying more than once when reading A Delicate Deception. Sometimes I think of myself as a jaded reader; many books entertain me, but few impress me, and even fewer really move me. But then I read a book like this one and it turns me into a giant mush-ball and I think maybe my book-reading heart and brain are not so hardened as all that.
A Delicate Deception is about Amelia Allenby, a young, reclusive historical novelist, and Sydney Goddard, who is a gentle, surly engineer. Amelia is the younger half-sister of the hero, Alistair, from the first book in the Regency Imposters series (Unmasked by the Marquess) and was friends with the heroine of the second book, Verity Kent (Amelia wrote the non-salacious parts of the salacious novel Verity publishes in A Duke in Disguise).
Amelia and Sydney meet walking in the countryside, although in their first few encounters Amelia is silently annoyed that a man is intruding on her solitude and Sydney is silently polite:
He lumbered along the path she had worn with her own feet as if he weren’t intruding on her property, her quiet, her peace of mind. And then, with God as her witness, he tipped his hat as he passed her by.
As an introvert, I can say that there is nothing more annoying than believing you are going to be completely alone and then having someone else appear, so I found Amelia’s irritation relatable!
There is something quiet and sweet about this book, for all that it radiates with emotional intensity. Unlike the other books in the series, which take place in London, almost this entire book takes place in two country houses and the surrounding paths. Walking is a major theme; country walks (coupled with witty conversation) are how Amelia and Sydney first bond.
Both Amelia and Sydney are processing grief and trying to rebuild their lives in different ways after major upheavals. For Sydney, he is grieving the fairly recent death of his brother and sister-in-law in a tragic accident, which leaves him the reluctant owner of his sister-in-law’s property. Amelia is trying to process that her life is going to be different than the one her mother had groomed her for. Even though Amelia’s mother was a nobleman’s mistress, she took pains to try to get Amelia accepted into polite society to (hopefully) make a marriage match. But Amelia has labored under the effort of maintaining a facade to cover up her social anxiety so intensely and for so long that she basically has a nervous breakdown and must retire from London to the countryside, where she has been living for a year with her close friend and former governess, Georgiana, when the book opens.
As with the previous books in this series, the characters feel incredibly real, with real problems and relationships. Amelia is curious, witty, intellectual, and brave as she endeavors to expand her social comfort zone. Poignantly, she also feels as though her real self is unacceptable to most people:
That was the problem with being schooled from one’s earliest age to mask one’s emotions in favor of playing a role: it left one with no doubt as to the inadequacy of one’s true self.
OOOOOF. Sydney is intellectual and gruff, but also sweet and sad, with a deep sense of morality (which is at least partly tied to being a Quaker). He seems to believe he does not deserve good things in his life. This book spends a lot of time exploring through Amelia and Sydney how people build and maintain facades, and the extent to which those facades hide and reveal one’s true self. This was intellectually interesting to me, but also, I wanted to hug these characters close to my heart and pat their heads and tell them everything would be okay.
The secondary characters are also a highlight. Georgiana, Amelia’s former governess, and Lex, Sydney’s brother-in-law, former lover, and now friend, both play a sizeable role in facilitating the romance between Sydney and Amelia. They do this basically the way real-life friends do–by being sounding boards for their friend about the relationship and proffering essential but mostly unasked-for advice. The preexisting relationships between the characters feel lived-in; the vibe between Georgiana and Amelia has its own particular flavor, as does the dynamic between Lex and Sydney.
Georgiana is a dream best friend. She gives this awesome pep talk when she’s trying to get Amelia to wear less boring clothes:
“You look beautiful, but that isn’t the point. You also look powerful. The woman in this looking glass could be terrifying if she wanted to. Nobody else would stand a chance.”
Georgiana, you can come to my house and motivate me to dress more boldly anytime.
For his part, Lex (who is the Duke of Hereford) is sort of cranky and acerbic, and spends most of the book mercilessly roasting Sydney. But it’s clear it comes from a place of genuine affection for his stubborn friend. In fact, as much as I enjoyed Amelia and Sydney, Lex pretty much stole the book for me. I mean, is there anything not to adore about this:
Instead of a normal coat, he wore a banyan of embroidered scarlet silk. He looked utterly louche, like the monarch of a particularly disreputable kingdom. While Sydney would have liked to blame this on the man’s inability to see his own reflection, he knew perfectly well the Duke of Hereford had always been like this.
Based on this book, I don’t think Lex is going to get his own book, but I definitely would not be mad if he did!
As for the romance, the banter sparkles, the conflict crackles, the sexual tension sizzles. Amelia thinks in an early encounter with Sydney:
She was eager, and for reasons she preferred to ignore—something to do with the breadth of his shoulders and his ready blush, the way his laugh sounded rusty and seemed to come as a shock to him. Even as she glanced up at him, she saw color spread across his cheekbones, and she bit her lip.
In a great romance novel, even a fairly mundane occurrence like going on a walk together becomes steamy!!
For me to talk in more detail about the romance, I need to give a disclaimer: this book has a somewhat daring plot structure for a romance novel that makes it a bit hard to talk about without some non-specific, quite general spoilers about the course of events. But I think knowing a little bit about the overall arc of the plot will be important for a lot of readers in deciding whether this book is for them.
Basically, this book is structured such that the two main characters fall in love twice. So they fall for each other, have a massive falling-out about midway through the book, and then have to fall for each other all over again, except everyone is now quite guarded and wary. In some ways this book is like if Pride and Prejudice if Lizzie and Darcy first had a steamy romance before they started to hate each other.
The result of this overarching plot conceit is that this book has a strong meta-narrative about societal ideas of romantic love vs. what romantic love actually is. There is a certain prominent narrative about romance in modern culture, namely, that it should be kind of an effortless, magical fantasy that conquers every obstacle “real life” throws at you without any work. (I’m certainly not saying that romance novels as a rule reinforce this idea, but they are one form of media among many that sometimes does).
To this end, the initial romance between Amelia and Sydney is a fantasy. They know almost nothing about each other, and create their own little world together that’s completely untouched by reality. Amelia even thinks: “The ease of their rapport was partly due to the fact that they didn’t ask one another difficult, prying questions.” Unsurprisingly, this fantasy romance is quite fragile and can’t stand up to obstacles.
The second iteration of their romance, however, requires the characters to engage with their entire lives in a more conscious way. It’s a romance between people who are trying to know each other completely, even the bad parts, and want to find a way to make it work in spite of the fact that it is not easy or perfect.
So this book blows up the idea of the effortless fantasy romance, and shows in a deeply moving way that a robust love is about total authenticity and compromising to meet each other’s needs. I am also very pleased to report that this book does not frame heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable HEA, as so many historical romances do.
It would be remiss of me to not highlight how delightfully queer this book is. Both Amelia and Sydney are bisexual. Georgiana is asexual, and Lex is gay. Some queer characters from previous books also make appearances. There’s a sense of found family that felt deeply moving.
So, since I just loved on this book for many, many paragraphs, what keeps it from being a full-on A? My primary quibble is that the plot kind of peters off towards the end. It feels as though the emotional conflict resolves before the climactic event, so the climax is not invested with a lot of tension. I didn’t actually mind this terribly as the book does have a slice-of-life kind of feel, but I do think it slows the momentum to the finish line. Also, there is a mischievous French child in this book, and while I found her delightful, she seemed somewhat superfluous to the core conflicts at play, and I cannot shake a sense of minor annoyance when books feature Extra Children.
All of the books in the Regency Imposters series are so amazing, moving, refreshing, and queer that I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. I am very glad that I don’t have to and that I can keep all of them forever in the keeper shelf of my heart (and, uh, my literal keeper shelf). Overall, I do not have much more to say about this book except that it is wonderful. It made me feel many feelings and think many thoughts about how people relate to each other. If I could get you all copies, Oprah-style, I would.