In Chasing Cassandra, the sixth book in the Ravenels series, railway magnate Tom Severin finally gets his turn to be the hero. I have been hoping for a book about Tom since he was introduced in the first book in the Ravenels series. After all, I love to read about a Sad Historical Businessman brought low by love! Unfortunately, while I enjoyed this book, it also pained me because I felt like it could have been so much more.
We open on the wedding of Pandora and Gabriel, who were the main couple from a previous book in the series, Devil in Spring. This wedding is where Tom and Cassandra meet. Tom is basically instantly smitten with Cassandra, but he’s also afraid of how intensely she makes him feel. Cassandra is charmed by Tom, but wants to marry for love, and Tom claims to be incapable of that. Most of the book describes their quite entertaining will-they-or-won’t-they quasi-courtship over the course of many months. There are plenty of accidental meetings, meddling relatives and secretaries, an adorable orphan child named Bazzle, one or more humorous lice infestations, and, of course, a Big Scandal. It’s all mostly quite light and fun.
As in pretty much all Lisa Kleypas books, the dialogue is amazing: it’s witty, sharp, revealing, and insightful. And not just for the hero and heroine; most of the major players of the past books of the series appear here and they all get to have zingers as they banter with each other. I couldn’t help but laugh at this exchange where Devon says:
“Furthermore, in the past two years, it’s been made known to me that women are intelligent, sensitive beings with hopes and dreams.”
“I can afford Cassandra’s hopes and dreams,” Severin said promptly. “All of them. I can afford hopes and dreams she hasn’t even thought of yet.”
I do think that the heavy inclusion of all the series main characters does make it harder for this book to stand on its own. Dr. Gibson is a big player here, as are West and Devon Ravenel. You’d be able to follow the plot without having read the other Ravenels books, but I don’t think it would be nearly as enjoyable. Half the fun of this book for me was seeing so many of the characters from previous books and how they had settled into their own HEAs. (There is a particularly heartwarming scene between West, Phoebe, and Phoebe’s son Justin).
However, the best part of this book for me was Tom. I found him to be a satisfyingly complex and dynamic character. He’s smart, rapacious, charming, somewhat cold in affect, and ruthless. On one hand he can run circles around everyone he meets, and on the other hand, he struggles with a lot of the basic premises of human relationships, which I found strangely adorable and heartwarming. At the beginning of the book he’s basically suffering from the malaise of a man who has achieved his dreams and is now bored. West tells Tom when he initially wants to marry Cassandra,
“For you, disappointment is inevitable. As soon as you obtain the object of your desire, it loses its power to enchant you. Knowing that, do you think Devon or I would ever allow you to court Cassandra?”
This does not mean he’s a mean person; even at the beginning of the book he has a fundamental sense of fairness and he does seem to want to treat people well out of principle if not empathy. However, he lives most of his life in the realm of the cerebral and claims he has suppressed all of the emotions that aren’t “useful” to him. He initially approaches Cassandra as though he’s making an investment or an acquisition: one that he will appropriately value and care for, but not one that he will love.
Falling for Cassandra forces him to confront a lot of truths about himself, such as that he’s not as ruthless as he thinks he is and he does want love and acceptance. Basically, love totally unravels him in a way that is very satisfying to read. While it is invariably a nightmare to deal with in real life, I love characters in romance who are all “AAAAH! AN EMOTION!!!! WHAT DO I DO!? HOW DO I GET RID OF IT!?” And the lengths that Tom ultimately goes to in order to protect and cherish and love Cassandra are pretty moving, actually.
I did not really remember Cassandra much from previous books. This may be because she has almost no personality. Or at least, her personality is not very…compelling? I was not actively irritated by her, but she is also my least favorite heroine of this entire series thus far. (Helen may not have been that bombastic, but at least she had a Dark Secret).
Like all the characters, her dialogue is clever, but otherwise her main personality trait seems to be that she is incredibly warm and nurturing. She also comes across as quite passive for a lot of the book, and when she did put her foot down on anything, it was generally about doing some more nurturing. For example, she insists on having a dog to take care of. She insists on taking care of the Plot Moppet of this book, the young street urchin named Bazzle. When it comes down to it she even insists on marrying Tom, fundamentally because she wants to take care of him. This all felt a little weird to me because Cassandra felt uncomfortably like a stereotype of a “good” woman–warm and giving above all, not too assertive or aggressive, smart but not smarter than her prospective husband. Basically, she lacked dimension.
The only thing I found particularly interesting about Cassandra was her love of novels, which, #relatable. There’s also a hilarious running bit wherein Tom misses the point of every novel he reads because he’s far too literal.
Because Cassandra was a little on the boring side, I found myself occasionally wondering why Tom was so obsessed with her. This is never a good thing in a romance novel. This was exacerbated for me by the fact that so much of the book is devoted to talking about how unbelievably beautiful Cassandra is. It started to feel weirdly like a value judgment, like her beauty makes her a more worthy person to love. So I would say I was only about 60% sold on the romance between the two of them.
In spite of Cassandra being kind of a milquetoast, Tom and the sparkling dialogue did keep me entertained throughout most of the book. However, the biggest issue with Chasing Cassandra, and the reason why I could not in good conscience give it a grade in the B range, is that there is no actual conflict in the book once Cassandra agrees to marry Tom. This is only about 70% of the way into the book, so that’s, uh…a pretty big problem.
Once they got married, I kept thinking they were going to have some kind of big conflict (or at least some kind of legitimate obstacle). After all, they have some decidedly different value systems. While Tom is interested in fairness and honesty, he’s not intrinsically generous and he’s fundamentally pragmatic. On the other hand, Cassandra is not very pragmatic at all but wants to shower love and care upon the entire world. These conflicts aren’t just abstract: at one point, Cassandra expresses that it is important to her that Tom spend time with their eventual children, and Tom says he does not really like children and is not interested in spending time with any. This is sort of waved away by Cassandra with “it’ll be different when they are your kids!” Meanwhile I was going Y I K E S y’all want really different things.
But whenever it seems like a real, blowout conflict is about to happen between the newly-married Cassandra and Tom, Tom just…capitulates. To whatever Cassandra wants. Yes, I will adopt this plot moppet! Yes, I will dramatically change my long-standing business plans to Do Philanthropy Instead! His easy agreement with whatever Cassandra wants is incredibly unsatisfying and it robs the last 20% or so of the book of any momentum.
I wanted Tom and Cassandra to actually address how different they were and work through some of those differences in a way that allowed them to remain close. Instead, it feels like Tom will make concessions for Cassandra, but Cassandra won’t change at all for Tom. This left me feeling like Tom and Cassandra were not actually compatible, which, again, not a good sign in a romance novel.
Overall, even though I did enjoy reading most of this book, I was left feeling kind of lukewarm due to the stalling plot and not quite satisfying romance. I think if you have been reading and liking the series so far there is plenty to like here, especially if you are interested in spending more time with the characters we have already been introduced to. But it’s certainly no Devil in Winter or Dreaming of You. (It’s not even Marrying Winterborne, which at this point remains my favorite in the Ravenels series and has a more satisfying Sad Historical Businessman romance).